With the dust finally settling on the General Election, it’s time to start evaluating just how well the process went for local boards of education. This year, for the first time in New Jersey history, voters in most school districts elected school board members in November. By moving school elections from April to the fall, school districts experienced higher voter participation, saved the cost of an additional election, and obtained budget stability.
For many of the 468 boards that switched to November school elections, those positive factors outweighed concerns about political party influence over the statutorily non-partisan board of education races. Additional assurance came from the legislative requirement that the non-partisan school board candidates appear on the November ballot separate and apart from the party lines.
In some areas of the state, however, the county clerks whose offices construct the election ballots “did not get the memo.”
NJSBA has heard from board members who feel that, due to poor ballot design, the political parties became a factor in school board races—with board candidates’ names seeming to be extensions of the Democratic or Republican lines for federal, state and county office. In municipalities where Democratic candidates won election, the school board candidates whose names appeared to line up with the Democratic slate tended to win. In places where Republican candidates received the highest number of votes, those school board candidates whose names appeared to line up with the GOP tended to win.
By law, school board elections are non-partisan. And the ballot design technically met the legal requirements since individual school board candidates appeared by name only with no party affiliation. But the poor ballot construction in some counties, likely unintentional, was clearly not in the spirit of the law.
Last week, I wrote to New Jersey’s county clerks through their statewide organization to express NJSBA’s concern about the impact of poor ballot construction in some counties. To be perfectly fair, I have to point out that the problem was not universal: Election ballots in several counties clearly delineated the non-partisan school board candidates from the political party lines. I offered the county clerks NJSBA’s assistance in helping to develop improved ballot designs for next year’s General Election.
Other adjustments to the November school election process are needed. For example, the early June candidacy filing deadline should be moved to a more realistic date, closer to the actual election. And we have been working with legislators and others to secure that change.
Over 80 percent of the state’s school districts have made a four-year commitment to November elections. NJSBA is working to ensure that the process works well.
These are my Reflections. I look forward to hearing yours. Post your throughts below, or contact me at [email protected].