With elections for the local board of education underway in most of New Jersey’s 600 school districts, two communities are wondering if they want to start voting for one in the first place.
Montclair, in Essex County, and Port Republic, in Atlantic County, are among the few remaining municipalities in New Jersey where mayors choose local school board members, not the public.
Following the success of citizens’ petitions in each of these cities, voters are invited to change the classification of districts to that where its members would be elected. Supporters of an appointed council argue that an elected form of governance is too political, costly for candidates, and risks the council being hijacked by single-question candidates and their voting blocks. Proponents of an elected council claim that the form of governance designated is inherently undemocratic, causes dysfunction and isolates decision-makers from the public.
There are 14 “Type I” school districts where the mayor appoints education board members in New Jersey, a New Jersey School Boards Association public affairs official told NJ Advance Media. The remainder of the state’s approximately 600 school districts are “Type II” school districts, with voters electing members.
Most people are unaware that there is still reluctance with this form of governance. This may be because many of the remaining Type I school districts are rather small, such as the Margate City School District, which has fewer than 400 students, and Brigantine Public Schools, with an enrollment of less than 600.
But this is not the case everywhere. One of New Jersey’s largest school districts, Trenton Public Schools, is also governed by an education council appointed by the city’s mayor, which has not been without its own tensions and control.
Until 2018, this was also the case in the city of Orange, when voters chose to change the way the school district of about 5,500 students operates.
In a statement sent to NJ Advance Media, Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren said that “while the process of board membership is necessarily politicized as the service is now based on campaigns and elections rather than appointments, the process has also become more democratic ”.
“Since so much of the taxpayer’s money goes to the school district, some felt it was appropriate for them to choose the decision makers. Separating fame seekers and political hacks from relevant officials will now be in the hands of the voters, ”he said.
And so far, the decision-making has gone “without incident,” Warren said.
“With a few exceptions, the public did well to choose our leaders. The transition went smoothly. The elected council has already hired a new superintendent, expanded schools and passed budgets. Orange is doing well with its elected board of directors, ”he added.
A similar change could happen in Port Republic, a small town of less than 2,000 people. After a successful door-to-door campaign, voters in the Jersey Shore community are putting their form of school governance to a referendum for the first time in the town’s 116-year history.
If approved by the voters, the board will be made up of five members elected by the voters.
Stanley Kozlowski, acting mayor of Port Republic, said there had never been a problem with appointed members of the education council.
“I think people are just looking for change and some transparency, that’s it,” Koslowski told NJ Advance Media.
As to whether he supports a nominated or elected form of governance, Koslowski would not specify.
“If you study the pros and cons, there are really some shades of gray in between,” he said.
In Montclair, this year’s referendum is far from the first. The issue has gone to the polls five times since the 1960s, and each time voters have chosen to retain an appointed council. The most recent referendum question, in 2009, was rejected by 57% to 43%, according to public records.
“People don’t expect that in Montclair. It’s a city that likes to think of itself as having a progressive civic life, but much of the status quo is based on a denial of grassroots voting rights and a denial of competitive elections, ”said Erik D’Amato, founder de Vote Montclair, a political committee at the forefront of the campaign.
The current system of governance means that the power to appoint board members rests with Mayor Sean Spiller, also the current president (and former vice president) of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful union representing teachers and staff. Support. D’Amato and other supporters of an elected school board report this as a potential conflict of interest, but Spiller has defended both his ability and his legal right to perform those duties.
In response to a request for comment on the referendum, Spiller directed NJ Advance Media to a public statement he made on the matter in April, in which he said:, or whether these board members should be chosen directly by residents is not a decision I can make.
“Voters can and should be responsible for deciding for themselves which mechanism for appointing Board of Education members will best serve students, residents and taxpayers. Even when there are differing opinions, I believe everyone shares the ultimate goal of preserving our world-class public schools, ”he wrote in a Facebook post.
Spiller said he “would be fully in favor of moving to an elected education council.”
If a majority of voters vote yes, the Board of Education would change from a council of seven members appointed by the mayor to an elected council of nine members.
Some public figures in the community spoke out in favor of an elected council. Current General Councilor Peter Yacobellis wrote an open letter on his website earlier this month, in which he revealed he would vote to change the Montclair school district to a Type II district. Yacobellis encouraged other voters in town to do the same.
“When I look at the statistics which show that we have the lowest enrollment in 22 years, the staggering turnover of superintendents, company directors and other executives, the persistent problems of equity in education and the incredible deterioration of our buildings; it’s clear to me that this system is broken and needs a tectonic shake, ”he said.
Former school board member Sergio Gonzalez, whom Spiller ignored for a reappointment this year, has also expressed support for an elected board. During a virtual panel discussion this month, Gonzalez said an elected council would allow a direct connection with individual voters and put decision-making power back into the hands of residents.
“The status quo, keeping it as it is, is a vote for failure,” Gonzalez said.
Diane Anglin, chair of the Montclair NAACP education committee, said she would also support an elected school board.
“I don’t want to lay any blame on the appointed board … but I think we’ve been doing something for so many years, it’s time to change and get new input into this process,” said Anglin said in a discussion forum this month.
The Montclair Area Voters’ League fiercely opposes these voices, which urge residents to vote no in the referendum with the slogan “Focus on education, not the countryside.” A statement on the group’s website describes a named board as “the best avenue for continuing to improve educational outcomes for all of the children in Montclair.”
The League also argues that a council appointed by the mayor may, in some ways, be less political than an elected council, and that an elected council is not necessarily more representative.
D’Amato called the position “offensive and infantilizing”, arguing that the election drama the League wanted to avoid was a basic tenet of a normal and functioning democracy.
“Out of all the cities in New Jersey, are we the ones that can’t run a normal school election?” Give me a break, ”he said.
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