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The Scarlet & Black

Letter to the editor: Students shouldn’t cede right to vote on school bond issue

Dear editor,

I am writing to you today—as a concerned Grinnell citizen and member of the Grinnell College community—about a most important issue. After a decade of discussion and planning, the local school district is asking registered voters to make a decision on April 7 about the future of the community’s public schools. Should the community raise funds by selling low interest municipal bonds to finance the construction of a new middle school and a new, consolidated elementary school? This is indeed an important question. But the particulars of the bond election are not actually why I am writing.

I am writing because it has come to my attention that a group on campus, Students for Equality in Education, has been advocating that College students not vote in the bond election. As far as I understand, and I admit that I haven’t spoken directly with the group’s leadership, their position is thus: They would like students to be involved, but that as temporary residents in Grinnell they should not be so involved that they effect decisionmaking on local issues. Instead, they advocate that their fellow students canvas in town, raising awareness about the upcoming election. While I commend their desire to ensure the integrity of local community life, on the whole I find the group’s position to be very troubling.

According to the Iowa Secretary of State, college students in Iowa are perfectly entitled to register to vote using their campus address, typically their dorm’s street address. While across the country we have seen cynical attempts to suppress voting, we are incredibly fortunate that fundamental voting rights are not tied to length of residency, property ownership or any other incidental characteristics. The only requirement is that we be able to prove that we live in the community when we register to vote. To say that Grinnell students should not vote because they won’t live here forever or because they don’t pay property taxes, both being arguments that Students for Equality in Education puts forward, is tantamount to asking students to cede their right to vote. Students may choose not to vote of their own volition. But to argue that they should not vote because they don’t meet certain arbitrary requirements? This is a big, big problem.

In full disclosure, I am a volunteer for Citizens Building Schools for a Better Future, a nonprofit citizen organization advocating for passage of the school bond—and I do hope that 60 percent of those who turn out on April 7 see what I see, that the bond offers an important opportunity for change in the local school district. More important, however, is that everyone who lives in the community educates themselves about the issues and votes. Period. Let’s take our right to vote seriously.

Thank you,

Caleb Elfenbein

Assistant Professor of History and

Religious Studies

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  • J

    Jazmine Bjelland '15Apr 6, 2015 at 6:53 pm


    I disagree. As I stated in my first post, student voting does have an impact on the relationship between the college and the community. I have talked to several community members and students who also happen to be townies and many of them have told me that they are very upset at the idea of students voting on this issue since it is, first and foremost, a town issue.
    Even if this wasn’t the case, it is a very troublesome situation to have the college students (many of whom come from privileged backgrounds as many are middle and upper-middle class) vote and end up making a decision FOR a town that has a large lower-income population. There is so much classism in this situation and other people don’t seem to see it (I think many people are willfully ignoring the class implication.
    As for pressing students not to vote, no one is doing this. I and the other students who hold this opinion that students shouldn’t vote are simply getting our opinion out into the public and attempting to educate the college (professors, administration, and students) on the effects of their actions whether they choose to vote or not.
    As for property taxes, I would say that that argument for why people shouldn’t vote is very flimsy and I don’t know where it came from. No one that I know of has been touting that stance.
    And lastly, yes, while Grinnell college students do spent time volunteering in the community and the schools (especially students like me who are in the education program), this is not an argument for them to be able to make decisions for a community. I personally think that the bond is a great idea for the Grinnell public schools, but I also think it shouldn’t be my decision to make. It should be the citizen’s.

  • B

    Barbara BrownApr 5, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Hey Guys,
    Simmer down. Your discussion has gotten quite far away from the issues of the bond election, which, yes, has property tax implications for our community, and yes, also has educational implications. The election does not put the college in opposition to the rest of the community, nor should it put any of us in opposition to each other, or to the larger goals we have for our local students through grade 12.

    I personally cringe at the thought of college students (or anyone) being unduly pressured either to vote or not to vote. They get to make up their own minds about that. I would likewise cringe at the thought of us telling any of our fellow Grinnell community residents that they shouldn’t vote based on the fact that they don’t pay property taxes either because they are renters, or because they are high school students who happen to be of voting age. Deciding whether and how to vote is a citizen’s choice. The results affect us all somehow.

    I also want to note that Grinnell College students spend a great deal of time volunteering in our larger community, and this includes significant interaction with our school system, volunteering with our teachers and helping in classrooms. I don’t think this gets enough attention. This gives them a very close look at how our schools and teachers operate, and what our K-12 students do and don’t have access to. That’s a great perspective to contribute to decisions that affect schools.

    I am so glad that there is interest in this topic on the SandB. Please let’s keep the focus on our students.

    Barbara Brown

  • J

    Jazmine Bjelland '15Apr 5, 2015 at 12:08 am

    Okay, so I wrote this in response to this letter, but since the S&B only publishes once a week, the only way I can get this out in time for the vote is through here. So, here is my reply “letter”:

    There seems to be some misunderstanding about a few issues involving both Students for Equality in Education (SEE) and the group’s position on the bond issue. First and foremost, I would like to correct that SEE does not have any leadership within the group. Everyone has an equal say within the group. Second, because of this, SEE as a group does not have a position about the bond issue. There are members within the group, myself included, who do not believe students should vote on the issue, but this is not a position being touted by the group itself.

    Now to talk about WHY I and other people have this opinion. I, and others, are not against students voting on issues. We are aware of the right for students to register to vote using their campus address and we would never, ever try to tell students that that right does not exist. But, just because something CAN be done doesn’t mean that it SHOULD be done. In this particular situation, students voting on the bond issue raises some questions on the morality of their involvement. With a large portion of Grinnell College’s students coming from the middle or upper-middle class in contrast to the large low-income population in the town, the students voting on the issue is similar to a group of white citizens coming into a predominately black neighborhood and saying, “this is how we are going to fix your problems.” This is not okay. It’s rift with classism and issues of college control over the city. Furthermore, while Elfenbein and others believe that the fact that students are a temporary community within the larger one is not an issue, it is. It is not, as Elfenbein calls it, arbitrary. The fact of the matter is, this is a decision that will affect the city of Grinnell for years to come. Most students at the college will not live in Grinnell past their 4 years. They will not work in Grinnell, they will not live in Grinnell, they will not send their children to the schools in Grinnell. But the people who do live here already do so and will continue to. It is THEIR community, we are just visitors. The outcome of this issue will not effect most of the students, it will effect all of the townspeople. As such, the decision to make a big change as with this bond should be decided by the community. Also, this position has little to nothing to do with the fact that college students do not pay taxes in the city, rather, it has to do with the fact that they are a privileged group making a decision for a less privileged one. There are deep and troubling questions of town control in the actions of students voting on this issue.

    Another thing to take into consideration is what the people of Grinnell think about college students voting on such an important city issue. There are already tensions between the college and the city. It is little wonder that these tensions exist when professors, administration, and students feel they should have more of a say on how the town is run than the citizens themselves. And yes, if students decide to vote, they would probably have more of an affect on this issue than the townspeople. Most citizens of any town do not tend to participate in voting for many reasons (time, transportation, not being/feeling educated about the issues, etc.). In contrast, college students tend to be more politically involved than other demographics. Since Grinnell is such a small town, the college could easily end up making this decision for the town with student voting. Is it any wonder that tensions between the college and the town exist when situations like this are not considered or, if they are, are pushed aside? If you want to better the relationship between the town and the college, students, professors, and administrators need to respect that the town can, and should, make its own decisions on important town issues like this without interference from the college. If the bond issue passes without the students’ help through votes, that’s fantastic, and if it doesn’t, that’s the town’s decision and they should be able to make that decision.

    Perhaps the most important thing I can state about this issue is that voting yes or voting no is not the only choice available to voters. Choosing to abstain from voting is just as much a political decision as choosing to vote one way or the other. Choosing to abstain is still exercising our right to vote. This is not to say that college students should not be involved in the issue. Those of us who are advising against students voting are still interested in being involved with the issue. Students, rather than voting themselves, can get involved in canvassing so that they can encourage more townspeople to get out to vote.

    Ultimately, this is a decision that the townspeople should be making for themselves, not having the decision made for them by students at the college. While the students on campus are entitled to go and vote on this issue, we should all be asking ourselves, should we?

  • T

    TruthApr 4, 2015 at 8:20 am

    OK, “Justice…”

    First, even if I cede your point about the college/students having skin in the game, the professor’s argument that not voting is equivalent to students ceding their voting right remains hogwash. Voting is your right — choosing to vote or not is equally your right.

    Second, let’s not go down the path that the college pays property taxes, OK? Given the value of the college’s property in town, the payments it makes are light years from what it would pay if it were paying the level of property taxes paid by private owners.

    And, since you opened the door, please tell us how the college practice gulping up so many houses in neighborhoods and properties downtown help the community. Buying the Pizza Hut, the Amoco, Bates, and who knows what else helps the town how? What does that do to diversify and strengthen the economy, the tax-base, or anything that is tangible to the town? Has the college stepped outside of its non-profit mission entirely? Should the largest downtown property owner, and thus, arbiter of business development, retain its non-profit status?

    What does the college pay for all of this? Pennies on the dollars the rest of us pay. But that’s an issue for another time.

  • J

    Justice and the American WayApr 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    The College does in fact pay some property taxes, so students pay property taxes indirectly with their tuition. Students also pay sales tax, and a portion of that funds schools. It’s not like they have no skin in the game. The issue being voted on is about more than taxes, and it represents the myopia and confusion of some people when they don’t see beyond the tax implications to the education implications.

    In my gradebook, “F” is for “fantastic.”

  • T

    TruthApr 3, 2015 at 7:57 am

    Professor Elfenbein, is entitled to his opinion, yet it represents the kind of egomaniacal selfishness that is so pervasive from faculty and the college.

    Voting is a right fundamental to our democracy. Professor Elfenbein fails to understand that the “right to vote” extends to voting or to NOT voting. His argument is specious and his method demagoguery.

    We citizens/townies pay the taxes that fund the schools — you students, unless you purchase a house to live in while attending the college, pay absolutely zero in property taxes. Your participation in the bond election as a voter maybe your right, but it is you meddling in a decision without any responsibility for the consequence. Irregardless if you “yes” or “no” vote, we townies are the ones who either will pay the bill or fail to have the school system we want.

    Voting is YOUR right. Do what you will — just don’t let anyone tell you that your choice NOT to vote (it’s called “abstain”) is equivalent to giving that right away.

    Were any of you students to write a paper using an argumentative-structure similar to Professor Elfenbein for a class, it rightfully would be graded “F”.