Three Towns, With Three Different Takes on School Elections

Elections in Bloomfield, Metuchen and Linden reveal voters' opinions on the governor, the teachers union and their school systems

They were those who have voted in school election for years and others spurred to the ballot for the first time by the rancor and rhetoric coming out of Trenton.

In Bloomfield’s Berkeley School, it was the older residents making up the bulk of the early ballots in the afternoon.

By dinnertime in Metuchen, younger professionals were filing into the Moss School to cast their votes, many making their first stop off the commuter train a block away.

And less than an hour before the polls would close across the state in one of the most closely watched school elections in years, the polling place inside Linden High School was still seeing a brisk turnout.

These are three towns, with three different electorates, and three very different dynamics in their support of schools—even in good times.

But these are not good times economically, and each town shed light into the New Jersey voters’ psyche in what some are calling a referendum on the new governor, the state’s powerful teachers union, or New Jersey’s public education system a whole.

That may be overstated for an election that rarely draws even 20 percent of registered voters, but from a small sample interviewed today, the governor did OK, the union less so, and the schools will survive.

The Budget in Bloomfield

Dino DiLauro should have good reason to support the school budget in his hometown of Bloomfield.

Besides three grandchildren in the schools, including the Berkeley School where he voted today, his daughter is among the nearly 60 people who would be laid off or see their positions eliminated next year due to budget cuts.

The district’s $84.5 million budget proposal was a poster child for the kind of pain being felt in schools across the state. Bloomfield was losing close to 20 percent of its state aid and cutting more than 100 jobs—mostly aides—to make up for it.

Its central office was being gutted, and programs trimmed across the board.

But through all that, DiLauro, 70, had little sympathy. He only smiled when asked his vote. “There’s still a lot of waste of money in Bloomfield,” he responded.

“It’s not that I’m bitter, but I want them to pick the right people for the right jobs,” he said. “I want it more professional, less like the Mafioso.”
In a district that has seen more budgets drop than win in recent years, those like DiLauro are among the reasons why. Bloomfield is a changing community, where gentrified neighborhoods coexist with tattered ones on Newark’s rim.

DiLauro, a retired piping designer, said property taxes have only increased as schools have struggled, this year included. It didn’t help that the district wanted another $3 million to renovate its athletic stadium, only six weeks after the voters rejected it the first time.

Gov. Christie’s call for teachers to accept wage freezes in the state’s fiscal crisis resonated with DiLauro. A small fraction of teachers unions did so in the state, Bloomfield’s not among them.

“I’m with the governor in saying we need to fix the system,” he said.

Metuchen Teachers Take Pay Freeze

Christie’s call for teachers to take wage freezes was probably the biggest headline in the weeks leading up to the school votes, as he implored, then demanded, teachers unions reopen contracts and be part of the “shared sacrifice.”

About two dozen teachers unions were willing to make such concessions. Metuchen’s was among them, and school officials said it staved off layoffs of up to 20 people.

“That probably helped in some ways,” said Sandy Slobodien, as she and her husband, Dan, exited the gymnasium of the Moss School after casting their vote for the $30.3 million budget proposal.

With two children in the public schools, it wasn’t so much the freeze that swayed their vote, as the programs that could still be lost. Their daughter plays violin for the high school orchestra, and clarinet in the band.

“And our son plays tuba, and he’ll be in the high school next year,” she said. “It’s the kinds of extracurricular programs that are the first to go in times like this.”

Still, as strong supporters of the schools, Slobodien and her husband didn’t harbor any animosity toward Christie in what has been a bitter war of words with teachers unions across the state.

The wage freeze, ideas for merit pay and tenure reform—the Slobodiens said it’s time.

“I applaud him going after the unions,” said Dan Slobodien, a cook at Princeton University. “I think tenure is rather archaic, the product of another time. Something needs to be done.”

“I just don’t think cutting back the budget is the answer,” he said.

Larger Classes in Linden

Linden’s budget predicament is as bad as any in the state.

A working-class city probably better know for its refineries than its schools, the district of 6,500 students stands to lose $4.3 million in aid under Christie’s plan.

In the budget going before voters today, spending is actually dropping a percentage point, but with less aid, the difference is being made up with a 4 percent tax increase.

And that still means no more summer school, the elimination of varsity golf and swimming and the reduction of 117 positions, including 68 teaching and other certified staff jobs.

“It’s going to mean larger classes, and I’d hate to see that,” said Elaine Krupski, one of the day’s last voters, with her granddaughter in tow.

“I went to Catholic school, where we had 55 in a class,” she said. “I know what’s like to be in a classroom when so much time has to be spent on dealing with behavior.”

Krupski said she has followed the heated exchanges out of the Statehouse, to a point — “there’s only so much you can read,” she said. But she didn’t put much stock in Christie’s calls for “shared sacrifice.”

“Shared sacrifice is OK, as long as it is on the other side, too,” she said of the governor a other politicians. “No more hiring people for $250,000 for four hours a day of work.”

Still, Krupski said she is likely in the minority in this tough year.

“The good news is I think there will be more people voting,” she said. “But I think there will be more people voting no, too.”