Switch to November Ballot Boosts School-Election Turnout

Board candidates, spending proposals moved for first time from traditional April vote

When Gov. Chris Christie and legislative leaders moved to shift school board elections to November, one of the aims was to increase voter turnout, which has been anemic in the April school elections.

Turnout in the 486 districts that chose to make the change was clearly up on Tuesday, with the presidential election bringing out an estimated 60 percent of the state’s registered voters.

But there was little illusion that all those voters who cast ballots for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney also made their way down to the bottom of the ballot, either, with fewer than half of the ballots in some districts including school board picks.

For instance, in Millburn, the total number of votes in the school election on Tuesday was more than twice the tally for 2011, increasing to more than 11,000 votes , according to the Essex County clerk.

However, nearly that many more ballots in Millburn did not even include a school vote, meaning almost half of the town’s voters cast ballots for president but left their school board pick blank, according to the clerk’s data.

Statewide vote and turnout totals for the school board races were not yet available yesterday. But where data was available, it appeared that turnout for school races was way up, but well short of the top of the ballot.

That’s still progress for those who have lamented lack of interest in school elections in the past, when turnout was often in the low teens and sometimes the single digits. Some estimated this year could be as high as 30 percent to 40 percent.

In Burlington Township, for example, two uncontested winners each received double the number of votes that the winner of a contested race usually gets.

“There was certainly higher turnout overall because of the top of the ballot, and even if they didn’t all vote (for school board), more did make it down the ballot than they would have otherwise,” said Tony Gallotto, a political consultant with Jaffe Communications, a political and public relations group in Newark.

Such a fall-off is not unusual in presidential elections, where even the U.S. Senate and Congressional races saw fewer votes cast than for President yesterday. The county freeholder races and the municipal council races were smaller still.

But the school board clearly ended up at the bottom, likely due to a host of factors. It was unfamiliar to voters in its first time on the November ballot, the names of candidates were more unfamiliar still, and there were also some unusual placements on the ballot itself since it is non-partisan and separated from the party-line voting.

“I think after this, you will see more organized campaigning going forward because school board candidates won’t want to get lost in the shuffle,” Gallotto said.

Next year’s election, of course, will include the governor’s office at the top of the ballot and likely some education issues as part of the campaigning, be it school funding, testing, or any number of topics.

“They’ll all be discussing a lot of the same issues, and I think school board candidates will want to get their points across,” Gallotto said. “You’ll see some of the first forays into real campaigning.”

The election yesterday wasn’t just for school board members, as more than a dozen districts also had separate ballot questions for a range of proposals.

As part of the same law that shifted the school board election, three districts asked for voter approval to go over the state’s 2 percent salary cap. Under the law, districts inside the cap no longer require a public vote.

Delran and Farmingdale won approval, for full-day kindergarten and new technology, respectively. Verona voters were the one exception, rejecting a proposal for $140,000 in extra spending to start their own full-day kindergarten.

Seven sought voter approval to change the composition of their school boards, most of them small communities looking to reduce the size of the board. New Brunswick voters again saw a proposal to move to an elected board rather than an appointed one, and once again rejected it.

Three other districts held construction referendums, to mixed results. All three parts of Elmwood Park’s $24 million proposal for school renovations was rejected. Monmouth Regional won approval for asbestos removal and new science labs, but lost a second proposal for a new auxiliary gym and paved parking lots.

Woodstown-Pilesgrove Regional won approval for its nearly $10 million plan for school renovations and a new early childhood center.