Norwich superintendent, registrars dispute school use for polling places

Norwich — The push for enhanced security in schools along with the desire to avoid disruptions to student learning are clashing with the convenience, low cost and practicality of using city schools as polling places during elections and primaries.

In Norwich, four schools have been used as polling places in recent years. But the two registrars of voters have announced that the Precinct 2 polling place will move from Kelly Middle School to the Rose City Senior Center across Mahan Drive from the school.

“Due to the continued refusal of the Superintendent of Schools to cooperate with us to provide an open election process at Kelly Middle School, we are forced to change the Precinct 2 polling location,” Registrars Dianne Daniels and Dianne Slopak wrote in a letter dated Dec. 16 to city leaders and the Secretary of the State's office. “We do this with great reluctance, but must consider the convenience of the voters.”

School Superintendent Abby Dolliver did not receive the letter, but was given a copy. She wrote a response on Monday to all recipients asking for a meeting of “stakeholders” to come to an agreement on locations of all polling places. Dolliver on Tuesday denied being uncooperative, but said concerns remain with the use of schools as polling places.

“As Superintendent of Schools, my main priority is student and staff safety as well as their access to their educational programs,” Dolliver wrote. “While I respect the need and requirement to vote, I believe a citywide decision would be in the best interest of all of our students, staff and community of voters.”

Dolliver said while schools are closed on Election Day, Kelly is used as a regional staff development location. She believes security measures should remain for staff. She said she asked staff and presenters at Kelly to park behind the school and next door at Norwich Regional Technical High School to leave the front lot parking for voters.

But Republican Registrar Dianne Slopak said parking continued to be a problem at Kelly on Election Day. She contended that other schools could have been used for staff training. And Slopak adamantly objected to locked doors.

"You can't have a free and open election process if the doors are locked,” Slopak said. “These are the issues we're dealing with, and we're trying to address them.”

The Rose City Senior Center has the same attractive points as schools  — it's free, and handicapped accessible with a large parking lot — and Slopak said she has discussed the move with senior center Director Michael Wolak to keep disruptions to senior programming to a minimum.

But Slopak said the registrars plan to keep using the John M. Moriarty, Samuel Huntington and John B. Stanton schools for voting. There are no good alternative locations. Fire stations often lack handicapped accessibility, except in unheated truck bays. Private locations would have to be rented.

Slopak cited state statutes that give registrars the authority to decide polling places and that boards of education “shall grant such use for any purpose of voting under the provisions of title 9 (a statute governing elections) whether or not school is in session.”

School would be in session during the April 26 presidential primary. At Huntington, voters would need to use the main entrance to get to the gym, meaning the front doors would have to be unlocked, Dolliver said.

If city officials do agree to meet to hash out the issues, two of those likely to be at the table would be the spouses of the city's two registrars. Aaron “Al” Daniels and Dennis Slopak are chairman and vice chairman of the Board of Education, respectively.

c.bessette@theday.com

Twitter: @Bessettetheday

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