By Tony Gallotto
This Election Day – for the first time since 1903 – voters in most New Jersey’s school districts will elect their local boards of education members on the same Nov. 6 ballot as candidates for municipal, county, state and federal offices, including the president.
Ninety-percent of all New Jersey school districts – 468 districts – hastened to switch elections from April to November after the state approved enabling legislation this year. District officials believe the change will boost voter-participation in school races where the average turnout was a dismal 15 percent for over a decade.
But, if the number of inquiries my office is fielding from municipal and school board candidates are any indication, this change has created unforeseen wrinkles in the fabric of New Jersey’s general elections.
Many school board candidates are starting to realize they need more sophisticated campaigns to compete for voters’ attention in a general election. Some have even begun to lay the groundwork for their November 2013 campaigns.
“To break through the clutter of bigger, better-publicized general election campaigns, school board campaigns must evolve,” said James M. Madden, a Wood-Ridge-based pollster. “Candidates will have to start polling and targeting voters, doing more door-to-door canvassing, sending direct mail, and making better use of social media.
“Putting school board candidates on the November ballot does not guarantee more voter-attention. These candidates will be listed at the bottom or side of the ballot with referendum questions,” Madden said. “Unless they wage real campaigns, school board candidates may remain relatively unknown to general election voters. Many voters may skip over them or even forget they are there.”
Meanwhile, candidates for mayor and municipal governing bodies are also rethinking their campaign strategies – commissioning fresh voter polls and more direct mailers – either to sidestep contentious school races or to distance themselves from prickly school issues.
Municipal candidates worry that poorly informed voters may now, more than ever, expect them to chime in on hot-button school issues like busing, redistricting, union contracts, and school renovations – all of which are outside their purview.
Even before the switch, many New Jerseyans remained stunningly unaware that school boards – and not municipal officials – are answerable for school-related matters.
“While campaigning twice for Edison Township Council, I was astonished that nine out of 10 people – people who regularly vote – simply did not know that our school board controls the lion’s share of their tax bills or anything else the board does,” said Edison Council President Robert Karabinchak.
“There’s no doubt in my mind – towns that moved to November school elections inadvertently altered the whole dynamic of the campaign process for municipal and school candidates. This will gradually politicize the school election process,” he added. The Edison School District’s election remains in April.
Municipal and school board candidates alike are also wary about more outside interference in their campaigns from political parties, teacher unions, or other special interests.
“School boards spend a lot of money on construction and renovation, consultants, legal expenses, and other vendors. As school board races become significantly more expensive, that could bring the specter of pay-to-play into these elections,” said David Redlawsk, director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll.
“The increased need to pay for polling, advertising, message-testing, and so on, may mean school board candidates feel pressure to raise more money than ever before,” Redlawsk said.
Political meddling in “non-partisan” school board races is typically rare, or at least well-camouflaged. Party affiliations cannot appear on ballots, but parties are not prohibited from endorsing school board candidates and are known to funnel contributions their way.
Similarly, teacher unions and other special interests that did not wade into municipal elections in most towns may feel compelled to exert greater influence, campaigning and financing mayoral and council candidates who align with union-backed school board slates.
Concern is also mounting that November school board races may turn into proxy wars between powerful political opponents, as it did in Jersey City this April.
Rarely has bare-knuckled political intrusion been more transparent than in Jersey City where a maverick councilman financed a three-person board of education slate to run against three candidates supported by the city’s mayor, a rival fellow-Democrat.
When Jersey City powerful teachers’ union threw its weight behind the mayor’s slate, the councilman’s team marshaled hundreds of volunteers, stepped up its direct-mail barrage and “RoboCalls,” used phone banks to prod residents to the polls, and used sophisticated computer apps to track in real-time whether voters actually went.
So, will this year’s headlong rush of New Jersey school districts to switch elections from April to November escalate the drama and create greater political intrigue in municipal and school campaigns?
Only time, and the next few election cycles, will tell. One thing is certain – cautious municipal and school board candidates are starting to saddle up for more challenging races.
Tony Gallotto heads the political consulting division at Jaffe Communications Inc., a Newark media relations firm.