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Shifting School Board Ballots to November Leaves Financing, Controversy Behind

John Mooney | December 5, 2012

With school budgets held in check, NJEA has little reason to reach deep in its pockets

Moving New Jersey’s school board elections to November was expected to raise the stakes of these historically sleepy races, but at least in this first year, the money didn’t live up to expectations.

In fact, campaign spending in these elections seemed to step way back. State campaign finance reports and a survey of school board members show tepid sums expended on individual races.

And at least one huge player mostly stood above the fray. The New Jersey Education Association, the powerful statewide teachers union, spent virtually nothing on the elections -- after shelling out more than $4 million in the past decade and upward of $750,000 in 2011 alone.

According to the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission, the NJEA election committee didn’t even file a campaign finance report for the November ballot. Its reports for the few remaining April elections showed only about $20,000 spent, mostly to support its locals.

The reason was pretty simple: the move by a vast majority of districts to November elections essentially took school budgets off the ballot for the first time, quieting the NJEA’s usual campaigns in support of school funding.

Under the law enacted last year, districts choosing November elections no longer were required to put their annual budgets up for vote as long as they stayed within state caps.

As a result, only a handful of districts ended up holding budget votes. For the NJEA, that took the issue off the table, the one that had prompted its annual statewide mailings and other media campaigns.

Those campaigns essentially peaked three years ago, with Gov. Chris Christie’s steep cuts in state aid and his public call for voters to reject local budgets if teachers didn’t take a wage freeze.

Before this year, “school budgets had become essentially statewide elections, and we simply don’t have the same dynamic anymore,” said Steve Baker, a NJEA spokesman. “We will certainly continue to push for support of our public schools, but for that specific project, we just didn’t do it this year.”

The individual races for school board seats remained pretty quiet affairs as well, according to a survey of its members conducted by the New Jersey School Boards Association and released yesterday.

Only 10 percent of respondents said they had spent more than in previous elections, and 34 percent said they spent less. A large number also indicated they spent nothing on their races, although the survey didn't make it clear if they were first-time candidates or did not run at all.

Campaign finance reports showed far less spent overall, with both the April and November elections totaling just under $600,000. That is less than half of the $1.3 million spent in 2009.

The state association’s survey contained some other interesting findings about the school elections.

Respondents were pretty evenly split over whether the school elections had become more partisan by moving to November, a fear of those who considered making the move.

School elections are nonpartisan, but now the candidates were on the same ballot as party candidates for higher office. Forty seven percent of respondents thought they had not become more partisan, but 40 percent said they had, according to the survey.

About half said they thought the ballots didn't do much of job in displaying the school races at all. Some indicated that voters did not even realize there was a school vote. Others said ballots appeared to list school candidates under specific party lines.

“It was clear the ballot was arranged to provide emphasis to state and federal election areas,” wrote one respondent. “The school board section was at the bottom and not noticeable unless you were looking for it.”

Another wrote, “It was a huge problem -- we had four candidates for three positions. Three were under the Democrat column, one under the Republican column. The one on the Republican column lost.”

Still, a vast majority overall said the move to the November election was worth it, with close to two-thirds supporting the move and less than a third saying their constituents were against it.

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