By Dalton Karwacki
School board elections in Princeton will not be moved to the November General Election and will remain in April, the Princeton Regional Schools Board of Education decided Tuesday night.
Governor Chris Christie signed a bill in January that gives school boards the authority to move the election of their members from the third Tuesday in April to the General Election in November. After discussing the potential benefits and drawbacks of such a change, the board unanimously voted against moving the school board elections.
The biggest drawback of moving the elections, board members said, was the fact that school budgets would no longer be voted upon by citizens. If the board wants to put a bond referendum on the ballot in a November election, it would also need approval from the Mercer County Superintendent’s office.
“If the decision is made, it goes hand in hand with no public vote on a budget in April, if a district is at or below the state legislative cap on the tax levy,” Superintendent Judith Wilson said. “That would mean a November vote on school board members only.”
According to Wilson, school budgets would instead only be subject to approval from the county and state. The budget would be presented to the public, but no public vote would take place. She said that New Jersey is one of the few states to hold public votes on yearly school budgets in local districts.
Average voter turnout in Princeton for April school board and budget voting is generally around 14 percent of registered voters, Wilson said. The state average for these elections is 11 to 12 percent.
“On a banner year, it doesn’t hit 20 percent,” she said. “So, there was always the issue of a very low turnout at the polls for the budget vote and the elections, which are held hand-in-hand, simultaneously in April.”
The main argument for moving the election was the possible savings.
“In Princeton, the April vote comes with a bill attached to it,” Wilson said. “We pay about $40,000 dollars each year because we must bear the cost of the polling places, the sample ballots, the election process itself and the polling workers.”
Moving the election to November would allow this cost to be shared with all of the other elections that already occur in the General Election.
Board Vice President Timothy Quinn expressed concern over the impact such a move would have on citizens’ involvement in the education process.
“My concern is that it seems kind of too good to be true to me, and I worry about the bigger issue of the erosion of local control,” Quinn said. “Right now we can point with pride to the fact that every citizen has a right to vote on our budget. We’re very fortunate to serve in a town that’s always strongly supported public education.”
There was also concern over the politicization of school board elections if they were moved to November.
“I do feel afraid that the election of board members in the future is not going to be partisan so much, but that it is going to be political, just by its nature of being in November,” Board Member Mia Cahill said. “All of this work that we do is volunteer. That’s not necessarily the case in other elected offices, and I worry that moving a school board to November is the first step in eroding the nonpolitical nature of the work we do.”
“I do not know the party affiliation of my colleagues, but hope – and even pray- that there are at least a couple Republicans around this table – in stark contrast to other municipal bodies,” Board Member Charles Kalmbach said. “I grew up in a one-party town and experienced that the attempt to hold a non-partisan election simultaneously with a general election is at best a charade.”
“In embarrasses me even to comment on the silliness of the legislature in attempting to create a non-partisan zone on the general ballot by use of differentiated font type and size,” he said. “This kind of transparently ridiculous over-regulation is illustrative of one of the reasons we are in the national economic crises that we are. In my view, we would lose an important part of the diversity on this Board that we so deeply prize, by the introduction of an increased partisan component that is inherent in a fall election.”
President Rebecca Cox said that, while voting to move the elections would have required a four year commitment, keeping them the same did not. She said that the issue can be brought up next year if circumstances change.
“I expect that we will revisit this issue next year to see if things have changed,” Cox said. “I think part of the uncertainty here is that things have changed so rapidly in the past two or three years that to lock ourselves into a different format for four years is incredibly long.”
Moving the election to November would have meant board members up for re-election would have retained their seats an additional 8 months, until Jan. 1. of 2013. It also would have meant the term for new board members would have been aligned with the consolidation of the two Princetons. New governing body members for the united Princeton will be elected in November and will take office Jan. 1 of 2013.