Much is made of the New Jersey Education Association’s power in state politics and policy, but the union's most dominant role may be in a very local place: school budget elections.
Last year, the statewide teachers union spent more than $350,000 on local school elections, making up close to a third of all money spent on the district-by-district votes, according to the latest state election data.
This is still small change compared with statewide lobbying and ad campaigns, and it wasn’t so much large checks in any one locale.
Instead, it was a few hundred here, a couple thousand there, from North Highlands to Absecon. The largest single sum was $40,000 to the Bergen County Education Association for ads and mailings. The largest sum to a local was $9,800 to Howell’s teachers union.
Added up, the total dwarfed what any other group put out for the local votes It also continues a trend that has held true for the past decade: overall, the NJEA has provided better than $1 of every $3 spent in the spring elections, according to the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), which collects the data.
In 2009, the NJEA spent over $740,000, more than half of all school election spending. Over the course of a decade, the union’s School Elections Committee spent close to $4 million out of the $10 million spent overall, ELEC reported.
"If there is one dominant trend during the past decade in terms of school elections, it is the growing clout of the New Jersey Education Association," read an ELEC white paper issued in December, even before the final numbers were tabulated.
Steve Wollmer, the NJEA’s communications director, said it has all been part of the NJEA’s ongoing campaign to promote public education, adding that it was sure to continue, including in the upcoming school votes in April.
Virtually all of the mailings, he said, were to the NJEA’s own members. Other money went to local radio and television ads. The school elections committee is separate from the NJEA’s political action committee, the big player in statewide elections.
"We don’t really do much external, but instead are mailing our own members,” said Wollmer. “It can get pretty expensive when sending it out to 200,000 people.”
The sums still pale in comparison in what the NJEA spent last year in statewide lobbying and ads, with ELEC reporting last week that the union shelled out close to $7 million overall, by far the highest sum of any organization.
Still, that was a fraction of overall lobbying expenses across the state. Local spending dominated the budget elections that typically draw less than 20 percent of the electorate and can be decided in a given district by a handful of votes.
School boards officials said that the local unions have filled a role in promoting school budgets that local districts themselves can no longer fulfill, since a half-century-old court ruling prohibits public funds from being spent on local campaigns.
"They do something that school boards can’t do any more," said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
But Belluscio stressed that the union’s role has no undue influence on a district’s eventual budget decision, including in labor contracts. Local unions sometimes endorse individual candidates, but recent state ethics rulings prohibit those candidates from then acting on local teacher contracts, he said.
"I can’t be emphatic enough: their contributions to budget campaigns have no influence on contract negotiations every three years," Belluscio said.
Nor is NJEA’s role terribly unusual across the country. Each state treats school elections and budget approvals differently, and each has different structures for its teachers unions as well. But local unions continue to be the one big player in local votes, experts said.
"Sometimes, you'll see a group of business leaders take an interest in a school board election, and suddenly it becomes like a real political race," said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based advocacy group. "But by and large, the teachers union is the only serious player in any of these races.
And, Williams said in an email, it’s really no surprise, given the amount of money riding on the votes. "The stakes are pretty high," he said.