Friday, May 12, 2006

Making School Elections Matter (NJ)

In New Jersey, school elections are held in April, when no other elected offices and no non-education questions are on the ballot. Predictably, year-in and year-out, voter participation as a percentage of registered voters is abysmal. Voter participation as a percentage of administrators, teachers, board members, their voting-age friends and family, and preferred vendors, is surely something else.

Years of delinquent and derelict school board “supervision” of excessively-paid administrators who bloated payrolls, awarded themselves generous “lulus”, made wasteful capital expenditures, and grew salaries at rates bearing no relationship whatsoever to performance, have left too many New Jersey school districts and their taxpaying communities on the edge of breakdown. The schools spend more than ever, and perform worse than ever, while abusive property taxes threaten the savings of homeowners and the character of communities. Real change is long overdue.

Now, the beginnings of real change may be at hand. Two bills – A1567 and its identical Senate counterpart, S708 – are on the move in Trenton, with bipartisan support. The bills have two main effects. Most importantly, they move school board elections out of April, when only organized interests are paying attention, to the November general election day, when several times as many voters will be motivated to pay attention. The second, less salutary effect of the bills is to eliminate a public vote on budgets that are within state guidelines of 4% growth, but all things considered, that effect is no great loss, for two reasons. First, the vote on the budget never meant much anyway, since a voted-down budget always ends up, after a trip to the local municipal council for potentially minor cuts, going back to the same board that recommended it. Second, and most to the point, those who control the board control the budget. These bills, at long last, give the communities a fair opportunity to control their school boards, and thus their budgets, and their curricula, etc.

The Senate bill recently cleared the Education Committee with only one dissenting vote.

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the union that serves the interests of teachers and administrators as well as those of the union leadership, and the New Jersey School Boards Association (NJSBA), which serves the interests of those already serving on school boards (and the people who organized to get them there, frequently the members of the aforementioned NJEA) both oppose moving the school board elections from the obscurity of April to the general election day in November. Why is that?

The stated bases of their objections – increased politicization of school board elections and increased voting in school board elections by under-informed voters, are both inconsistent and specious. Greater political activism, including, yes, party-based candidate support, brings more information to the electorate, not less. In any event, just like mayoral elections in Boston and a number of other significant general elections, the proposed November school board elections will be officially non-partisan, and ballots will reflect that. As for the specter of the invasion of uninformed voters, as Rush observed in song, “if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.” The choice of so many voters to stay home in April means that presently, successful school board candidates are elected in the greatest measure by the choices of the least motivated. That’s unacceptable, and sadly, it’s just how the NJEA and NJSBA like it and want to keep it.

NJEA and NJSBA motivate their interested constituents every April to protect the incumbent school boards and elect approved new board candidates, who in turn will protect and grow the interests of the NJEA and its interested friends and associates. The payrolls bloat, the salaries increase, the buildings get expanded, more personnel are hired to fill them, “consultants” get paid, and in most districts, teaching performance increasingly disappoints. Taxpayers stay home because many know that the budget vote is essentially phony. The most capable parents of school-age children have moved their children into the relatively few districts that do perform well, or else into private alternatives. The rest cannot, absent the synergies that come with a November general election cycle, compete politically with the professional, institutional, entrenched and politically savvy interest groups represented by the NJEA and NJSBA, whose priorities do not include the education of New Jersey’s children.

New Jersey readers, please take one minute to send an e-mail to your state senator and legislators, respectfully urging them to support A1567 and S708. Start at the convenient, official "e-mail your legislators" link below, choose your New Jersey town or city from the drop-down menu, and carry on from there.