New Jersey breaking tradition with November school board elections

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Many of us are preoccupied with behind-the-scenes election questions this week. Does the panicky Obama campaign really think that Big Bird is the President’s best surrogate? Is the Sesame Street reference meant as a subliminal reminder of the Romney Campaign’s gaffe comparing the candidate’s platform to an Etch-a-Sketch? What’s with the toy theme? Never mind. School boards in New Jersey are concerned with more substantive election questions, specifically how our new system of voting for school board members will fly during its inaugural avigation on November 6.

The Garden State has always had school board member and school board budgets on the third Tuesday in April, but on Jan 12, a new law gave communities the option of moving elections to November. This can be done in three ways: a school board resolution, municipal governing body vote, or by a petition signed by 15 percent of the voting public.

Different versions of this bill, introduced in 2008 by state Senator Shirley Turner, had died multiple deaths in committee. However, during the lame duck session last winter the bill passed with broad bipartisan support.

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Many school board members viewed this cataclysmic shift in election patterns with some trepidation. The law contains both a carrot and a stick. The carrot is that if boards opt for November elections, then the school budget vote, a peculiar New Jersey tradition (the public doesn’t vote on any other budget), is eliminated as long as that budget comes in within a 2 percent cap.

The stick is that now school board aspirants must campaign during the traditional election season. While this has the additional benefit of saving money (since these elections piggyback on general election ballots), boards worried that this would politicize the process, forcing typically non-partisan campaigns to become beholden to local political parties, thus compromising educational integrity and increasing the costs of running a campaign.

There were other concerns too. One of the intentions of the bill was to increase voter turnout for school board member elections, typically a dismal 10 or 15 percent, with most voters either parents or teachers. Many questions came up: Is a higher turnout a good thing or a bad thing? Would people pay attention to smaller local matters in the midst of a general election? How would ballots physically distinguish between partisan elections and non-partisan ones? Would school districts, eager to avoid the time-consuming practice of marketing budgets at every PTO meeting and Rotary club, lose control of the electorate?

And the timeline didn’t give board members much time for reflection. Remember, this bill was signed in mid-January. The state set a deadline to hold a November election was February 17. It’s also a decision that includes a four-year commitment to the November date.

To move or not to move? Many boards agonized. Nearly everyone was surprised when, by the eve of Feb deadline, 468 of the 538 school districts in New Jersey with budget elections had switched to November board member elections, leaving only 70 boards with April elections. (Almost all were by school board resolution, not by municipalities or community petitions.)

So, how does this look so far, less than a month before Election Day? There are fewer people running for school board seats than in a typical April. Some say that this is partially due to some confusion about filing dates (unusually early, although that may get changed in the Legislature).

So far, we have not seen school board campaigns become highly politicized. Are some school board elections partisan? Sure, but they always have been: think Elizabeth or Jersey City or Hamilton. And partisanship is where you find it. It’s not always a matter of local Democratic and Republican clubs: sometimes its other special interest groups. A 2002 report from the N.J. Election Law Enforcement Commission found that 9 percent of N.J. school board campaign contributions came from political parties but 40 percent came from donors with ties to the state’s primary teachers’ union, New Jersey Education Association.

Some clairvoyantly-oriented board members predict that the 70 holdout boards will join their brethren soon and resolve to move to November in 2013. Others wonder if the 468 boards will regret their impulsive compliance with the new bill, all in the name of a carrot.Only November will tell.

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. The views expressed here are her own.. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.


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