At Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, the Board announced that due to recent Election Law legislation, the BOE has until February 17 to decide whether or not to move the Board of Education election from April to November.
The Board engaged in an intense debate regarding a decision that could save the district $27,000 – 30,000, but would take away the public’s opportunity to vote in favor or against the school budget, as long as the BOE remains inside the 2 percent cap. Here is how the new election law works as explained in a presentation delivered by BOE President, Trip Whitehouse:
- The Senate and General Assembly passed this bill with a bipartisan majority. It was signed into law by Governor Christie on January 17. Other municipalities in the area, including Cranford have already passed BOE legislation to move the election to November.
- The election can be moved in several ways:
- The school board can enact a resolution to move the election.
- The Town Council can do the same. In this community, the Fanwood Borough Council and the Scotch Plains Council will both have to vote in favor for the election in order to move to November.
- A public vote can take place if 15 percent of SPF voters who voted in the last Presidential election sign a petition to move the election date.
- If the BOE election date is moved to November, it will remain in November for a minimum of four years.
- If necessary, special elections can still take place in January, March, September and December. April is not an option.
- If the election is moved to November, the public will no longer have the opportunity to vote on the school budget UNLESS the budget exceeds the two percent cap. In that case, the public has the right to vote on the school budget in the November election.
- If the election date moves, the November ballot will serve as not only the opportunity for voters to vote in political elections (i.e. the Presidential election) but also for the BOE candidates. These elections will be run by the county, meaning that the district would accrue a savings of at least $27,000 dollars a year.
- When possible, the county will make an effort not to list the BOE candidates next to Democratic or Republican candidates to avoid politicizing the Board of Education.
While the budget will still be crafted in April, if for some reason the district should need to apply for additional funds, the school budget will not be approved until the next school year in November. This will limit how extra funds can be allocated for the 2012-2013 school year.
Despite these proposed changes, the BOE noted that the public will still have the opportunity to attend public hearings at each school to learn about the proposed school budget. While there will be no public vote, the budget must still be approved by the County Superintendent and the state.
If the election date is moved to November, voter engagement will jump from 18 percent, to 44 percent. Since the Board can automatically pass the budget if it remains within the 2 percent cap, there is no risk of program cuts, as the budget could no longer be defeated by the public.
The Board spent much of last night’s meeting debating this change. Some members, expressed a concern that if the Board chose not to move the election, the cost of holding an April School Board election would spike.
BOE Vice President, Nancy Bauer explained that the more towns that choose to move the election to November (which again, would be paid for by the county instead of the district), the less aid Scotch Plains-Fanwood would receive from the state and the county to fund an election.
Perhaps the most contentious topic of this debate was the fear that if the BOE election was moved to November, the BOE would become politicized due to the chance that candidates would feel the pressure to align themselves with a political party up for election.
“Moving the Board of Education elections to November would make it 10 times more likely that candidates will to align themselves with a political party,” BOE member, Betty Anne Woerner expressed. “In my nine years on the Board of Education, that has never happened and that is invaluable. We spend our time here productively, focusing on what’s best for the schools, instead of arguing politics.”
BOE members David Gorbunoff, Jeanne Cleary, and Dr. Karen Kulikowski, all expressed that moving the election date from April to November would not make a difference in the political expression of the BOE.
“While I believe that the partisanship concern exists, I think that it is outweighed by the savings and increased voter involvement this change would bring,” Cleary said. “Other districts are partisan - and underperforming because of it - and they were elected in April.”
BOE member Douglas Layne noted that if his election had been in November, he probably would have chosen not to run, stating that he likes not knowing the political persuasions of his fellow BOE members. He also expressed that those who want to run to help their community, such as active PTA members, run regardless of political party, and that a November election may discourage them to run.
Layne also noted that while the pool of voters in an April election is smaller, those are the voters who are informed and care about the future and wellbeing of the district. A larger number of uniformed voters may not necessarily be better, he said.
BOE member Amy Winkler expressed that a Board of Education election in November might get “lost in the fray,” while many other BOE members added that a November election could change the way candidates run. In a town where BOE candidates don’t spend money on lawn signs or mailers to get elected, some BOE members feared that that may change in November.
After a long debate, Trip Whitehouse announced that the Board will hold a special meeting on February 9, at 8 p.m., to discuss this matter. There will be time allotted for public comment and if the Board reaches the conclusion to move the election to November, they will vote that night and pass a resolution. If not, the BOE will announce their decision to leave the election in April.
To let the BOE know how you feel about this issue, send an email to the Board at firstname.lastname@example.org before the February 9 meeting. Whitehouse requested that when contacting the BOE, send an email to that address because emails sent to individual BOE members may or may not be reviewed at public meetings, at that member’s discretion.
What do you think? Engage in your democracy! Should Board of Education elections in Scotch Plains-Fanwood be moved to November? Tell us in the comments and voice your opinion in the poll below. Board members will review the poll results as well to help get an idea of where the community stands on this issue.