NJ School Board Elections? These Holdouts Are Sticking With Spring

John Mooney | March 5, 2012 | Education
Roughly 10 percent of school districts across the state have not moved elections into November

They have become the holdouts, the handful of New Jersey school districts that have gone against the grain and decided to keep their school elections in April, at least for now.

Under a law passed this winter, districts were allowed to move their elections to November as a way to boost voter interest. What started as a trickle quickly became a torrent: 468 districts — nearly nine in 10 — have made the move.

The big lure was that those making the switch would not be required to put their annual budgets to the voters, as long as they stayed below the state’s 2 percent property tax cap.

But for a scant handful of districts, just 71 in all, that apparently wasn’t enough.

In Camden County, only Haddon Heights is voting in April. Bridgeton will be the only April vote in Cumberland County; Readington, the only one in Hunterdon. Every district has switched in Burlington, Cape May, and Union counties.

So what has kept those holdouts voting in the springtime, this year on April 17?

The reasons varied with each district. Some wanted to ensure that the public could still vote directly on their taxes. Others feared that school elections would be overwhelmed if they had to share a ballot with legislators, governors, and even the president.

And still others said they at least wanted to have more time to think about it, citing the rule that once switched, a district cannot go back for four years.

Neptune Township was just one of two districts in Monmouth that is keeping to an April vote, the other being Marlboro. Its superintendent listed all of above as reasons.

“I’m not sure which weighed more in the end, but there was a concern in taking the public’s voice away,” said David Mooij, the district superintendent. “There was a sense it was just a knee-jerk reaction to the legislation to move the election.”

Like others, there was lengthy discussion among Neptune’s board members. They did not see the protests that neighboring Toms River or Oceanport saw over the move, the superintendent said, just passionate debate as to voters’ place in the process.

“It’s always kept us on our toes because we knew we’d be scrutinized by the voters,” he said. “We just didn’t know if there was going to be the same level of transparency.”

Harrington Park was one of 20 districts in Bergen County to stay in April, by the state’s count. That’s a minority of the state’s largest county but by far the highest number to remain.

Harrington Park superintendent Adam Fried said his board’s concerns were many, but one was the potential politicization of the process if the election moved to November, even with the budget not on the ballot. This year, that means school board members would be elected on the same ballot as the president.

“We felt strongly that the elections were placed in April for a reason and that this could create an environment that is not educationally based but [based on] what party you belong to,” Fried said.

In other states with November school votes, he said, “you’ll see some staggering numbers regarding what people are spending in elections across the country.”

Still, it wasn’t an easy vote for many of those who decided to stand pat. In Montgomery, the board’s vote was 3-4 against a resolution to move the election.

Board president Christine Ross voted against the resolution, saying she was especially worried that education issues would get lost in a presidential election.

“This was absolutely the worst year to be trying this,” Ross said. “Even with a lot of dominos falling, there were a lot of people who thought waiting would be prudent.”