Bakersfield City School District board members passed on an opportunity Tuesday to fill a vacant board seat three months earlier than they had planned and with a greater cost savings to taxpayers.

Trustees opted against holding a special election in January that would have allowed mail-in ballots only because of the strain it would have placed on staff coming off winter break and amid concerns of low voter turnout. 

“Lots of people don’t even look at their mail or disregard it and are more apt to vote if we have a special election,” Board President Lillian Tafoya said. “I’m not in favor of an all mail-in ballot.”

She called the traditional special election, with polling places and all, a “more democratic process.”

But because many Kern County residents are already permanent absentee voters, such a move could have slightly increased voter turnout and resulted in significant savings, Kern County elections chief Karen Rhea said.

It's not clear how significant the cost savings would have been. 

"It saves money, and it's hard to say how much, but the bottom line is when we have to establish polling places, we have to have so many people there, and we've had poll sites where just two people vote, yet we're required to have a full board and be prepared as if 1,000 were going to vote," Rhea said. 

Trustees have struggled to fill a board seat left vacant by Raymond Gonzales, who resigned in May over health issues just months after reclaiming his seat in an uncontested race.

The four-member board has debated whether to hold a special election, which would have cost about $78,000 if they had opted to hold it in June. They opted to appoint a member, but when candidates came forward, trustees couldn’t agree on one.

By late July, the board was forced to hold a special election in April, which could come at a cost as high as $98,000 because of overtime costs for elections employees.

As a result, the district has lost multiple opportunities to fill a board seat earlier and provide Gonzales’ district in central Bakersfield some representation.

Trustee Pam Baugher, who has long asserted that board members should have held a special election from the start, was critical of the proposal.

“If we had gone the way I wanted, we would have had somebody this November,” Baugher said.

The special election, which board members voted to approve in July, will take place in April 2018.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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