Getting Out the School Board Vote in the Garden State

John Mooney, Education writer | September 18, 2012 | Education
With school board elections rescheduled for November, can local candidates be heard above the background noise of national politics?

ballot box
While the presidential election in November is getting all the headlines, another landmark vote will be taking place on November 6 that is struggling to grab people’s attention.

For the first time in a century, more than 460 of the state’s nearly 600 school districts will vote for their school board candidates in the general election, the result of a state law signed last January that gave districts the option to move their elections from April to November.

Far more districts than expected opted for the change in the first year, drawn by the incentive that school budgets will no longer need to be voted on as long as they stay within the state’s caps.

But with the benefit comes a challenge: the public may not even notice the school board candidates on the ballot, relegated to the bottom or the side, squeezed out by presidential, congressional, and other higher-ranking spots.

“I’m doing phone calls and letters, just to make people aware,” said Gerard Laudati, running for his seventh term as a member of the Kenilworth school board in Union County.

“I was at a Union County [political] club meeting recently,” he said, “and most of the people had no idea that there even was a school election.”

Of course, the challenge goes both ways: these candidates will be battling it out for the first time in an election in which a good number of people actually vote. Typically, the April school board elections drew turnouts in the 13 percent to 15 percent range.

Candidates Work to Stand Out

Faced with the prospect of as many as half of registered voters casting ballots, candidates are struggling to get their message across. With three contenders vying for three open three-year seats, Laudati said it could be a “crapshoot.”

“Not a lot of people will be coming out to vote for the school board,” he said. “It could be an eenie meenie miney moe kind of thing.”

These were issues that districts and school boards wrestled with last spring, when they debated whether to switch to the November election. On the one hand was the benefit of no budget vote and a greater turnout overall. On the other was the worry about getting lost in the maelstrom — and politics — of general elections.

In the end, it didn’t make much difference. The school board association’s tally after the June nomination deadline found only a slightly lower number of candidates vying for open seats, and roughly the same proportion of incumbents.

Overall, there will be 1,813 candidates for 1,448 seats, roughly a 1.25 ratio. That’s down from 1.44 last April and 1.38 in April 2011. About half of them are incumbents, about the same as in the past two April votes, according to the association.

Tony Gallotto of Jaffe Communications, a political consulting and public relations group, said he has started to get calls from candidates wondering how to draw some attention, in what will clearly be a crowded field of better-known names.

“They tell me how before they’d maybe put out a couple hundreds dollars and put up a couple of leaflets, but now they wonder if they will need to run a real campaign,” said Gallotto, who directs the firm’s political consulting practice for state and local races.

A big issue is how partisan the races may become, given that school boards are supposed to be apolitical. That doesn’t mean races haven’t been plenty political in the past. “But I think you will see it get a lot more overt and see different candidates aligning themselves,” he said.

Not much will be known before November 6, including if the high turnout for the presidential race will trickle down. “I think this year and maybe next will be test years to see what happens,” Gallotto said.

Laudati, the Kenilworth candidate, said he’s a little anxious about it himself, but he knows there will be one perk in this. “It’s something I will be able to show to my grandchildren: that I was on the same ballot as the president,” he said.