Education Advocates Debate Merits of School Election Change; Vote Scheduled for Tonight
Wednesday, September 19, 2012 • 9:00am
PATERSON, NJ – City education officials and advocates on Tuesday night debated the merits of a plan to switch Paterson’s school elections from April to November.
The event was supposed to be a community forum so school officials could get input from the public on the proposal, which is scheduled to be voted upon at tonight’s Board of Education meeting. But only about a dozen members of the public showed up for the forum, which was held at the auditorium of International High School.
The switch in the election dates is being pushed by Board of Education President Christopher Irving. During his presentation Tuesday night, Irving talked of "making our children an electoral priority."
Irving said moving the board's annual elections to November would allow for increased voter participation and save the school system approximately $150,000 annually in election-related costs.
"At the end of the day, it's about engaging people," he said.
But Irving also acknowledged during his presentation that there were two major concerns about making the change. One is that school board races would be “drowned out" by other campaigns in November. The other is that political party bosses would pick candidates for school board.
Among the Paterson school commissioners opposing the change is Jonathan Hodges, who said it would be a mistake to switch to November elections from the existing April election, and a mistake that could not be undone right away if it proved to have "unintended consequences."
"You can vote for this every single year until you switch. Once you switch, you can't switch back for four years," Hodges said.
Hodges argued that the school board election could easily be "lost in the shuffle" and by sharing the ballot with major statewide or national campaigns, and become more easily influenced by political parties.
"You will probably have more people out. But they're not going out to vote for the school board. They're not focused on the school board election," Hodges said.
Hodges likened having school board elections alongside partisan federal or state races to referendum questions that regularly appear at the bottom of ballots in November. He said voters usually do not research or examine them carefully before going to the polls.
Irving said there were "many more people interested and engaged in November elections." The board president noted that the past six school board elections drew between 2,855 and 5,773 voters, or between 4.66% and 8.58% of eligible voters.
Documents presented by Irving also showed that the board spent an average of $168,455 on each of the last three elections. Irving questioned spending so much, "for an election that brings out three to four thousand. To me, the math just doesn't add up."
Hodges acknowledged the potential cost savings, which he said represents less than .03% of the board's budget. "What are the real costs?" he asked.
Hundreds of New Jersey school boards will be holding their elections in seven weeks, in accordance with a new state law that authorized the boards themselves make the switch to fall elections. The non-partisan board elections will be alongside partisan elections for federal, state, county, and local offices for the first time.
In Passaic County communities that made the switch, it still remains unclear where school board candidates' names will physically appear on this year's ballots, education advocates said. Responsibility for designing the ballots rests with the Passaic County Board of Elections.
Hodges warned that school boards that are making the switch could end up in a difficult position with new board members joining in January 2013, during the middle of the school year and immediately before the complicated budget process begins. He also said the change could hinder the board's self-evaluation and the evaluation of the superintendent, which also happens during the first few months of the calendar year.
"You have three new people on the board who may have no idea," he said of a hypothetical situation where three newcomers were elected to Paterson's nine-member board.
Irving said 590 school boards in the state, or 85 percent, have switched to the November election since the state law was passed in January, according to Irving's presentation. Seventy-one still have not yet made the move, including the three most populous districts: Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson.
Irene Sterling, President of the Paterson Education Fund, a non-profit advocacy group, said that the reason so many districts have switched was because it permitted them to avoid putting the school budget to a public vote if it did not exceed a 2% increase.
But that's not a problem in Paterson, a state-controlled district where the budget is not put up for a public vote, she pointed out.
"If we had to vote on the budget, I'd be the first to vote for [November elections]," Sterling said.
Sterling, the only member of the of the public to speak at the sparsely attended forum, also said the proposed switch would mean candidates for school board would need to raise more money to campaign to the voting public.
"Right now, you don't need a lot of money to run for school board... The real cost we need to look at is not the cost of the election itself," Sterling said.
Sterling’s organization annually mails a school voters’ guide to people who voted in the previous election. She said holding the elections in November would increase the mailing cost for her group to distribute from about $7,500 to $20,000. Moreover, she said, school candidates would face a similar cost increase if they wanted to mail out campaign fliers.
Sterling said the increased need for campaign funds would inevitably lead to political influence. "That money is going to be very difficult to raise without going to the major parties," she said.
On the issue of increased influence by political parties, Irving insisted it won't happen because the election will remain non-partisan on the ballot. "I've yet to see an example of any municipality where parties cherry-pick candidates," Irving said.
Hodges contrasted his own cynicism with Irving's optimism as he pressed his case against the proposal. "He is young and very optimistic. I'm a lot older and very cynical. I also say I have reason to be if you consider the amount of interference this district has had from local politicians," Hodges said.
"Forgive me for my cynicism but you can support somebody without saying the D or the R," adding that parties could unofficially help with getting out the vote and even campaign literature.
Errol Kerr, a board member who also serves as the chairman of the Paterson Democratic Organization, said he too will not support moving the elections at Wednesday's meeting. "Education will be an afterthought and that's not what we can afford at this time," Kerr said.
Sterling said the school board has until February 2013 to make the switch in time for the next election. "There are no consequences to waiting until the November election," and evaluating how the new system worked in other communities, she said.