The State Legislature is set to vote on bill S-1861 on Monday which contains three items: eliminating public votes on school budgets that come in below the 4% cap, reducing the super-majority (60%) required for second questions to a simple majority, and moving school board elections to the standard Tuesday in November. The bill is sponsored by Senator Shirley Turner, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, and was originally called A-15 because 15% is considered the highest voter turnout possible when you have school board elections in the third week of April and no one besides school boards and teacher unions are paying attention.
Predictably, the New Jersey School Boards Association issued a statement praising the first two elements of the bill but slamming the third element:
Many legislators support the idea as a way to bolster voter turnout for school elections, which traditionally hovers around 15 percent. In addition, lawmakers contend that consolidating elections would save tax dollars. However, school boards members maintain that November board member elections would result in partisan politics dominating local education issues on a wide scale, in spite of best efforts to prevent it from occurring. NJSBA will seek amendments to have this provision removed.
We beg to differ. Moving school board elections to November is a smart, balanced move that is consistent with N.J.’s professed efforts to streamline our floundering educational system. First of all, it costs each school district somewhere in the neighborhood of $40K to run a separate election in April, which is about the salary of a teacher (well, okay, maybe 80% of a brand-new teacher excluding benefits). Yes, it might make the school board candidates stoop to “partisan politics,” but it would also diminish the impact of unions and special interest groups whom are accustomed to hand-picking allies, which is merely partisanship by a different name.
April school board elections impose a degree of parochialism on our public schools (no pun intended) which is, in some ways, perfectly consistent with home rule. Not only does each district have its own set of administrators, officials, budgets, programming, and facilities, but the election of its governing members is chronologically distinct from those of, say, municipal officials or governors or senators. This both artificially diverts the major driver of taxes – public schools – from the full attention of the public but also bypasses the necessary strategic integration of school-based issues and State-wide concerns. Sure, school board members represent the public, but perhaps it’s time to recognize that our extreme form of local governance fosters separatism, segregation, and inefficiency. If our goal is to create an equitable and accountable model of public education, then we need to move beyond insular local concerns and embrace all the children of our State, not just the ones within our small-town provincial borders.