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Elisabeth Ginsburg, Executive Director
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11-3-13 Time of Trenton Opinion - Do Not Underestimate the Importance of N.J. School Board Elections
Time of Trenton – Opinion - Do not underestimate the importance of N.J. school board elections: Until recently, school board elections were held in April...Selection of our school board members is critical for determining how our children are educated and our tax dollars are spent. Don’t leave it to chance. Choose wisely on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Time of Trenton – Opinion - Opinion: Do not underestimate the importance of N.J. school board elections

Time of Trenton guest opinion column, Trenton on November 03, 2013 at 6:05 AM

By Lisa Wolff  (Lisa Wolff is president of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education. The opinions expressed are her own. This article is not written on behalf of the board.)

Until recently, school board elections were held in April. Although elections were not well attended, voters cast their ballots with a specific knowledge and purpose, namely, to vote on the budget and to elect school board members.

This week, 95 percent of school districts across the state will hold school board elections in conjunction with the November general election. Boards of education voted for this change in order to involve more people in the process and save taxpayers the expense of an additional election. However, the switch to November carries with it some unintended challenges.

Additionally, this November move also eliminated the school budget vote.

While politicians often wax poetic that “All politics is local,” none of the candidates on the ballot will have a more direct effect on your property-tax bill than your school board members — regardless of whether you have students in the district.

School board members’ primary responsibilities include setting policy to ensure a high standard for the quality of education, selecting and evaluating the superintendent, and negotiating union contracts — actions that not only determine student achievement, but also establish the size and scope of the school district budget that our property taxes fund.

It is interesting that many homeowners spend more time getting educated on their township council candidates, when their school board candidates usually have a far greater impact on their pocketbook. The school district budgets account for the lion’s share of property taxes, and with no school district budget vote, budget determination is largely in the hands of your school board members.

Yet, the new November elections add complexities that April voters have never experienced.

First, the actual process for voting for our school board candidate(s) is not as straightforward as we might expect. In Mercer County, for example, the top of the ballot lists the regular offices: governor, state Senate, General Assembly, county freeholders and municipal committee/council. Next are all of the public questions, both state and local. Then, the “Official School Board Election Ballot” is a separately placed box tucked away at the very bottom left-hand corner of the ballot. (Please become familiar with the ballot prior to heading out to the polls.)

Second, the additional voter participation is a double-edged sword, since the need to educate the electorate is far greater. For example, a person who typically relies on party as an indicator to suggest some sense of platform will not have this ability in voting for a school board member. Unlike other general election candidates, school board candidates are completely nonpartisan and all appear for selection in a single, random list. Therefore, the ballot includes no distinguishing features among incumbents, new candidates, detractors or proponents of the current administration or the endless other possibilities that might influence the voter.

Since the April elections were focused on a single matter, it was fairly easy to come up to speed on school issues. Unfortunately, the glut of general election candidates combined with limited space in traditional media results in a dearth of relevant school board candidate information.

For example, in Hopewell Valley alone, three community newspapers historically ran biographies and followed the local school board candidate race that culminated in April. For this election, however, none of the papers wrote bios or articles on school board candidates, even though there are significantly contested races. This means that even the voters who are most eager for information are finding it difficult to educate themselves.

Thank goodness for the League of Women Voters. Its candidate forums, hosted in most municipalities, are one of the best remaining ways to judge candidate fit. Another reasonable source of information is the letters to the editor page of the newspaper, where candidates have submitted letters articulating what they support, their value set and their philosophy in working on a board.

Be attentive and absorb as much information on school board candidates as possible. Consider temperament and whether candidates share your priorities on student achievement, use of tax dollars or any issue particularly relevant to running the school district.

Selection of our school board members is critical for determining how our children are educated and our tax dollars are spent. Don’t leave it to chance. Choose wisely on Tuesday, Nov. 5.


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608