Bedeviled November School Board Elections May Be Even Harder to Spot

John Mooney | November 5, 2012 | Education
National elections and amended district calendars -- not to mention Superstorm Sandy -- could obscure school votes even further

For all the uncertainty this week will bring for New Jersey public schools, throw in a truly unprecedented event: school board elections as part of Tuesday’s national ballot.

The question now is how many people will notice.

It will be a wild week in general for New Jersey’s schools, with close to half of them finally opening on Monday, according to the state Department of Education. In all, 255 districts out of 590 statewide have reported they will be open, many for the first time since Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey and New York.

Unsurprisingly, school districts across the state are making last-minute adjustments to their calendars, with many taking take advantage of the canceled New Jersey Education Association convention normally held this Thursday and Friday.

Now factor in the school board votes slated for Election Day, the first to be held in November since a law enacted last winter gave districts the option to move to their ballots in return for not needing a public vote on the school budget.

In all, 468 districts will hold board elections on Tuesday, with less than 80 remaining with April votes. Overall, there will be 1,813 candidates vying for 1,448 open seats, according go the state’s school boards association, a slightly smaller ratio than usual for April elections. A little more than half of the candidates are incumbents, a slight increase.

But while the move to November was meant to boost turnout in school elections that usually hovers in the teens, several observers wonder how many more people will actually cast local votes on what will is already a crowded ballot.

“Just because you may get 60 percent to 70 percent turnout for the presidential race, it doesn’t mean all of them will vote all the way down the ballot,” said James Madden, a political consultant with the Gallowglass Group in Wood-Ridge.

“There will be a bump, but it is hard to predict by how much,” he said.

Madden and others said the races had barely made a dent in the political landscape before Hurricane Sandy, and they will surely be fighting harder for attention after it.

“There would be low knowledge of the races beforehand and even less now, with all the campaign signs being blown over,” said Patrick Murray of the Monmouth Polling Institute at Monmouth University.

“I think there will be a lot of people surprised when they walk into the polling booth and even see [a school race] on the ballot.”

If they can find it, that is. Local races are separated on the actual ballot from the national and state races. Depending on the county, the local races will be listed to the side of the ballot or at the very bottom.

“Some may not even see it, given its place on the ballot,” Murray said.

Still, these are the board members who will be making decisions on local schools for the next several years, including budgets, which have hardly escaped the notice of anyone.

The New Jersey Education Association’s political action committee has made several endorsements in the local races, about the same as when the races were held in April.

Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the NJEA’s government relations director, said she fully expects turnout will be higher because of the presidential race at the top of the ballot. But questions abound after that.

“I think it will be interesting to see if putting board candidates on the ballot leads to unlikely results in these elections, since the turnout is going to be so much higher,” she said in an email.

“Will it advantage challengers or reinforce the power of incumbency?” she continued. “How many more people will vote in these races? Will board candidates get many more votes overall than they would have otherwise, or will voters skip these races because they are less likely to know the names of the candidates?”

Madden, the Bergen Co. political consultant, said one thing he has learned in advising candidates is that school board voters are not the same as general election voters, and vice versa.

“They are not your normal voters,” he said. “I’ve gone back to see how these people vote in the primaries or general elections, and a lot of them don’t vote at all.”