The William James Educational Complex cafeteria has served as a voting place for nearly a quarter century, but Bulloch County Schools officials say this is no longer compatible with safety and security requirements for the building’s current and evolving school programs.
So now, county and Statesboro city officials are talking about a finding new voting site. Several alternatives have been suggested, ranging from the community building at Luetta Moore Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive to the privately owned Belle House on Westside Road.
In county, state and federal elections, the old William James School cafeteria at 150 Williams Road serves as the “Statesboro precinct” poll, one of the four busiest of Bulloch County’s 16 election-day voting places. In city elections, the cafeteria becomes the “Statesboro 1” voting place, serving one of two city precincts. Because 2023 is a municipal election year, the Nov. 7 non-mayoral city election would be the first affected, with no county or other elections expected this year.
After some earlier conversations, school system Safety Director Todd Mashburn began “official communications” with the county Board of Elections and Registration in October 2021 “to move the voting precinct due to growing security concerns and increased use of that portion of the building for student learning programs,” Hayley Greene, the Bulloch County Schools public relations director, replied in a March 2 email.
“The school district has cooperated with the Board of Elections since that time to continue to host elections while they searched for an alternate location; however, after the November 2022 election, the school district notified the Board of Elections that it could no longer accommodate further elections,” Greene said.
In addition to Mashburn, she noted, Superintendent Charles Wilson and Assistant Superintendent Troy Brown talked about this or emailed with Board of Elections personnel, county commissioners and County Manager Tom Couch. The move apparently has not been the subject of a Board of Education vote, and one would not be required.
A school in use
Besides the school board’s central offices, the complex – formerly William James Middle School and historically William James High School – now houses three separate student programs, one of which is moving out while another is being phased in.
Together over the course of extended weekdays, these currently serve more than 250 students ranging in age from 3 to 18, Greene said.
“It increases safety concerns to host a large election precinct in the cafeteria adjacent to these programs,” she wrote, responding to the Statesboro Herald asking about the school system’s reasons.
The current three programs are the district’s Transitions Learning Center alternative program for sixth through 12th grades, the Head Start preschool program operated by an outside agency, and the Bulloch County classrooms of the also independent Coastal Plains Charter High School.
Head Start has been in the process of moving to another location, but the Bulloch County Schools district is phasing in its own new LEAP, or “Lead, Empower, Adapt, Pride,” a short-stay intervention program for elementary school students with behavior problems.
With the layout of the building, there is no way to close off access to a student hallway from the entrance leading to the cafeteria, Greene said. So the school district had to request that law enforcement officers be posted there on election days, but she said officers could not always be available.
Also, poll workers and voters wanted to use the restrooms that were available to students, which she said the school system could not allow because of safety concerns.
Voters are not considered school visitors and have not been asked to follow the school district’s visitor protocols. Visitors who enter secure areas of the district’s regular schools are now asked to have their driver’s license scanned for security alerts before they can be issued a visitor’s badge and are then accompanied by school personnel.
Greene said that “many times” voters who were previously students at the old William James campus had been “found wandering in the student hallways without permission.”
“Due to the nationwide focus on school safety and the school district's increased safety protocols, it's no longer feasible for an active school building with children to be a voting precinct,” she wrote.
She also listed concerns about added traffic and the loss of the cafeteria for student meals on school days.
Muddled through ’22
Upon hearing the school district staff’s concerns in 2022, Bulloch County Election Supervisor Shontay Jones and the Elections Board made accommodations but could not move the precinct in the course of a busy election season, Jones said.
In an effort to address one of the school system’s concerns, the county government placed portable toilets outside the William James Complex for use by voters at the November general election and December runoff.
“Previously we had always mentioned it at the (election) board meetings when the concerns came about, and the school district allowed us to finish the election year there,” Jones said.
Now, with only the Nov. 7 Statesboro city election expected this year, officials have more time to find a location and go through the required legal procedures, Jones said.
“So we’re definitely currently trying to find a location within the city of Statesboro and in the precinct lines that could serve for both city and county,” Jones said. “We’ve looked at a couple of places. We haven’t finalized anything.”
Currently more than 7,600 voters are registered to vote in city elections and more than 6,400 are registered to vote in state and county elections in the affected precincts. But in recent elections more have voted early or absentee than at the location on Election Day.
Black voters make up the majority in both the county and the city precincts that have voted at the William James Complex.
In a Feb. 23 email to Statesboro’s mayor and council members, Bulloch County commissioners and other local officials, Jones mentioned four possible sites that had been mentioned for the voting place.
The first mentioned was the Belle House, an event venue at 380 Westside Road owned by Biff and Adria Thompson. Jones said it had been offered long-term for a $100 cleaning fee for each election, and thanked Randy Newman, county special county projects director, for advocating for this possibility.
A map attached to the email showed the Belle House as just inside the city limits and 0.75-mile from the William James Complex.
Another site someone had suggested was the Original First African Baptist Church, 545 Westside Road, but Jones noted that it is outside the city limits and could not be used for city elections.
Another is the Statesboro Municipal Court Complex on the corner of West Grady and South College streets. Jones wrote that downsides could be parking, working around court hearings and the need to secure the site for three days for a Tuesday election.
County election officials had thought that the community building in Luetta Moore Park “would be perfect,” but were informed “at the time” that they might not be able to use it because of “the influx of after-school programs and activities,” Jones wrote. But she noted that she didn’t know if this had changed.
This was what had been said earlier last year, when the building’s use was ramping up after the park’s 2021 renovations, she explained on the phone Friday.
When a site is chosen, City Council will need to approve it for city elections and the Board of Elections and Registration for county elections, Jones said. Under state law and regulations, the elections staff will have to advertise the proposed change in the newspaper, send notices to all affected registered voters, and later post signs at the old location for any voters who show up there on the first election days.
“Hopefully we’ll have something soon,” she said Friday. “We’ve been talking to the city because this affects them as well their upcoming election, and we have a deadline that we need to get settled on a place.”
Mayor Jonathan McCollar, who is in the middle of a term and not up for election this year, said the Luetta Moore Park location would be his preference among the sites that have been suggested.
“Right now, my hope is that Shontay and the Board of Elections will be able to make a great decision,” McCollar said. “I looked at the proposed sites. The one that makes sense to me, if we’re going to move it, would be Luetta Moore Park. I think it’s more centralized, it’s got the parking … and then it’s still walkable for that district, so to me, that would be a major plus.”