November School Board Elections Attract Fewer Candidates

Quirk in filing deadlines or reluctance to share the ballot with partisan races?

When the Legislature last year allowed school elections to move to November, one of the worries was that people would be reluctant to run for the typically nonpartisan jobs on the same ballot as partisan races like the presidency.

Now that some early results are in, it looks as if a few of those fears may have been realized — although not to the degree expected. In fact, the slight dip may have more to do with a quirk in the filing deadlines than anything else.

Nearly 1,900 candidates filed by June 5 for the November races in a total of 468 districts, representing about 1.2 candidates for every open seat, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

That was down from a ratio of nearly 1.4 candidates for each open seat in 2011, when all 541 elections were held in April. About 70 districts held their elections in April this year, with roughly the same ratio of candidates to open seats.

“It was a minor downtick,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the school boards association. “But that may be able to be addressed with a change in the deadline.”

What he’s referring to is this year’s early filing deadline for the school board races, coinciding with the state’s Democratic and Republican primaries that determined the ballots for the partisan elections in November.

“The decrease was probably more of a lack of awareness of the deadline, with it coming so far ahead of the election,” Belluscio said.

A bill is in the Legislature that would move the filing deadline for school boards up to the same date as nonpartisan municipal elections, 64 days before the general election date, or September 4 this year.

Sponsored by state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic), the bill would go into effect the year after enacted, so it wouldn’t affect this year’s election. It has yet to move in the Legislature.

Still, it appears there will continue to be at least some competition for seats in November, and Belluscio said his association will next look at whether there has been a decline in incumbents seeking reelection. The association hopes to release a full breakdown for every town in the next week or two, he said.

There has been a decline in interest in serving on school boards over the past few years, although it has typically been slightly less than three candidates for every two seats. The last time there were 1.5 candidates for each open seat was 1997.

Some thought that moving the election to November could actually increase interest. That didn’t occur this year but it could be a possibility as people get used to the new date. Ironically, one of the reasons for the change to November was to increase voter interest. Turnout percentage typically runs in the low to mid-teens.

The new law’s impact on school board elections has gotten less attention than the law’s main impetus, which allowed districts shifting elections to November to be exempted from school budget votes, as long as they stayed within state tax caps.

A vast majority of districts jumped at the opportunity, making the traditional April votes — a century-old tradition in New Jersey — now more an exception than a rule.