Legislators Fine-Tune Law Allowing School Elections to Switch to November

John Mooney, Founding Editor | November 25, 2013 | Education
Bills will adjust deadlines for board candidates to file and for budgets to be completed

Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr.
The 2012 law that resulted in the shift of a vast majority of New Jersey’s school elections to November is about to get some tweaks aimed at making the process easier for both school board candidates and for school districts themselves.

The Assembly Education Committee is slated today to hear several bills aimed at fine-tuning the law that ended the state’s century-old practice of April school votes and led to more than 500 districts shifting the elections to November.

One bill, sponsored by state Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), would move back the filing date for candidates seeking election to 64 days before the November election. That would be three months later than the current early June date that coincides with the party primaries, a full five months before the election.

A second bill also under consideration that passed overwhelmingly in the Senate last week would move the date to the last Monday in July.

Whatever new date is eventually decided, the change is meant to address what has been a shortcoming in the current law in forcing candidates to file so far ahead of the votes.

The current June deadline has been blamed, at least in part, for a continued dearth of people vying for school board seats. In the last election, barely four candidates ran for every three open seats, on average.

In addition, another bill would extend the budget deadline for districts that moved their votes to November, lessening some of the pressure on districts in the spring.

The boards now must complete the budget process in March, in time for their spending plans to be put up for vote in April. But for those districts moving their votes to November and no longer needing voter approval of budgets, the bill would extend those deadlines until late April and May.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the education committee and a prime sponsor of the budget-related bill, said both bills aim to fix unforeseen problems in the original law.

“Until you actually see the law in place, you don’t always think about some of the things that might come up,” he said yesterday. “We’re basically adjusting the dates to deal with the changing circumstances.”

The prospects are strong for both measures. The Senate approved the similar change in the filing deadline by a 38-0 vote last week. That bill is sponsored by state Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic). The change in the budget deadline is still pending in the Senate, but that is sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate’s education committee chairman.

Whatever date is eventually picked, Diegnan said there was no assurance that moving the filing deadline would necessarily draw more candidates to the school board races, as it’s tough to get people to participate in their local governments in general.

“Hopefully, this will help get people more involved, but time will tell,” he said.

The education committee’s meeting this afternoon will be its first since the November election, and likely the committee’s last voting session of this year, Diegnan said. He does plan another meeting in December, but said it would be solely to hear testimony on the state’s oversight of private schools for students with disabilities.

Otherwise, Diegnan said he would rather not try to cram in significant legislation in the lame duck session. He added that there would be plenty of work once the new year begins, especially regarding charter schools.

“I think that is something that will happen (next year),” he said of new charter legislation. “There is motivation on all sides to put in place regulations that everyone understands. I think everyone realizes we need to do something.”