Board of Ed elections back in April; a progressive move

I am a first-year member of the Plainfield Board of Education explaining my position on an important issue. This is no way reflects the sentiments of the entirety of the Board.

Last month, at our first occasion to do so, the Plainfield Board of Education voted to return its annual election to April. I am proud to have been part of moving these elections back to their appropriate season.

A year and a half before Plainfield View and nearly three years before I began service on the Board, I attended the February 2012 meeting where the Plainfield City Council voted unanimously to move the elections to November.

Then-new state guidelines permitted School Boards and municipalities’ governing bodies to have local BOE elections coincide with the general elections for four election cycles. The switch to November also stripped Plainfield residents of the right to vote for the school budget each year.

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A standing room only crowd at the City Hall Library on February 6, 2012, when the elections were moved with the blessing of Jerry Green, shown speaking here. (photo by Bernice Paglia)

It was a race to action, as the City Council held a rushed special meeting on a rainy Monday night, only one day before the Board of Education was set to meet and vote on a resolution to keep its own elections in April.

At the time, Plainfield’s governing body was the only in the state to forcefully move BOE elections. Nevertheless, several City council members claimed that night that these elections would not be politicized. The vote was 7-0.

In the four elections since, Plainfield’s Democratic Party Chair, be it Green or Mapp, has openly run Board of Education candidates out of the Democratic headquarters.

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Board of Education candidate Emily Morgan promoted at Plainfield Democratic Headquarters this November (photo by Bernice Paglia)

We’ve had team Obama and then team Booker. The Democratic party headquarters and party resources have been used to openly promote these board candidates, the very practice that April Board of Education elections were there to prevent. Board Candidates have been thrown onto the Democratic line with city councilors, freeholders, and on up the ballot.
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Plainfield Democratic Chairman Jerry Green ran a slate of Board Candidates in 2014. Our Rutherford, Jeffers, Bellamy team defeated them all pretty handily.

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In 2012, the Democratic Party even painted opposition candidates as “The Romney Team”. Current chairman Mapp and past chairman Green worked in tandem during that election, and the following, in 2013. Republican Chair George Gore has yet to field a slate. (photo by Bernice Paglia)

Schools are the city’s largest employer, biggest budget, and most importantly, educators of our youth. The schools deserve a legitimate electoral contest.

Unfortunately, the most important local election has become a mere footnote at the bottom of the autumn ballot, in favor of highly politicized battles in our awfully undemocratic two-party system. “Vote Democratic Line B and also Emily Morgan for school Board” was the most recent iteration at the polls, and on campaign literature.

Opponents to the November elections make a short-sighted argument: greater voter participation in the elections.

It’s true, the American electorate – and Plainfield – faces a serious problem in low voter turnout. This was lower in April elections compared to November. But our electoral system has greater ills than lack of voters: namely the stranglehold of the Republican and Democratic political machines, and money in politics. Higher voter turnout, on its own, does nothing to alleviate these serious issues.

Moving the elections cured one problem and badly worsened two more. After all, what value does participation hold if voters are ill informed, or if they believe they are voting “down the line”? It’s a case of one step forward, and two steps back.

That’s not to say that local citizens don’t have the right to organize for change – which rarely happens without local, grass roots mobilization.

Since the April 2010 “Grand Slam” victory of Renata Hernandez, Wilma Campbell, Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, and Keisha Edwards, Plainfield High School has gained its first accreditation in over thirty years. The Board’s state governance rating went from 11% to 100%. The district’s graduation rate sits at 87%, far higher than five short years ago.

Politicians like Jerry Green and Adrian Mapp have the right to organize as well – but they shall not do so under the banner of the Democratic, or Republican parties. That is, after all, the whole point of non-partisan school board elections.

April elections give citizens a fighting chance against the Party Chairs, their vast resources, and their inherent proximity to candidates for state and national office.

There is a cost associated to empowerment. The yearly price of April elections was between $30,000 $35,000 in 2011. However, because Plainfield is the only district in Union County to have already moved its elections to April, the estimate now stands closer to six figures, as estimated by the City Clerk.

We can not control the actions of other districts, and Plainfield is merely the first to make such a change.

This potential cost does not deter this Board member from a position of principle, and of necessity in a city like ours – one of a handful of municipalities in the county with contested races, regularly fielding more candidates than Board openings. For comparison’s sake, the Plainfield BOE spends nearly $70,000 yearly on another integrity measure, the required fiscal audit.

The cost will be less should Elizabeth move its elections next week, against the wishes of Democratic kingpin and State Senator Ray Lesniak. There are few people in the state more political – or despised among progressives – than Elizabeth’s gubernatorial hopeful who, of course, gained influence on the city’s Board of Education through spending large sums of money on November contests.

After a big victory last fall, Lesniak has faced a key defection, making a move back to April a possibility in our county’s most populous city. Plainfield and Elizabeth, the two largest cities and school districts in Union County, have 32% of the county’s population and 36% of its public school students despite Plainfield’s 1,500 students in charter schools.

Unfortunately, some would like for the Plainfield’s School Board to be totally swallowed up into the partisan, donkey and elephant world.

At a recent Spotlight on Cities Conference with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp expressed his desire to appoint the School Superintendent. This is more interesting in light of Mayor Mapp’s city-sponsored robocall (listen below) attacking Superintendent Anna Belin-Pyles. She recently responded at a City Council meeting.

 

In this mayoral discussion, which you can watch here, Mapp proposed a hybrid system where he’d appoint Plainfield Superintendent of Schools and the Board would set policy. This would result in a weak, toothless elected Board of Education that has no power over the appointment, evaluation, and firing of the CEO who implements those very policies. It’s a recipe for disfunction.

Employment and evaluation of a Superintendent is considered the most important function of any School Board, and activists in Milwaukee recently waged a high profile battle against such a takeover.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka took a more progressive stance regarding community self-governance. Baraka, whose district is now state-run, called for “community control that outlives what [the mayor] wants to do.”

Community control, Baraka explained, does not preclude him from being involved in his school district. “Just because I’m involved in it doesn’t mean I have to be in charge of it,” said Newark’s Mayor. Indeed.

City mayors have enough to deal with – crime, job creation, pot hole repairs, economic development, and the like. We should not balance students’ needs with those of city services.

Most importantly, the Board of Education should operate independently from the highly partisan landscape of mayoral and city politics. November elections were a step towards that world; April elections are a step away.

Starting this April, those interested in joining the Board of Education will have to wage a School Board race – not a City Council contest, nor a presidential campaign. There will be no “Team Hillary” in November. No Board of Education candidates will be linked to lines A, B, C, D, or E. Plainfielders will again vote for the budget. School issues will dominate the discussion.

Power will be just a little bit closer to the people.

16 thoughts on “Board of Ed elections back in April; a progressive move

  1. I appreciate the detail in the information you provided. There are many great points that deserve attention and I hope it spurs others to be involved in the process and seek more knowledge on the issues.

  2. Hi, David,

    Of course, I heartily disagree with the change to April, because of the cost, but mostly for the low voter turnout in April. When I voted for the change back in 2011, I was not thinking about political advantages or disadvantages, although nothing precludes parties from endorsing and supporting BOE candidates. I continue to support individuals whom I think would best serve the interest of our children–regardless of party affiliation and who they are endorsed by. Sometimes, I don’t lend my voice to any particular candidate. Voters have their own minds, and they can see through political machinations–from whichever side they come. But, as a longtime member (and former officer) of the League of Women Voters, my LWV colleagues and I bemoaned the low voter turnout, even after we publicized the elections and held candidate forums. Also, when the elections were in April, the polls were only open for a very short time, from 2:00 – 9:00 pm. This is another extremely distressing and greatly contributing factor to the low voter turnout. It is my hope that if the elections are to be in April that at least the voting hours will be reasonable (having polls open in the early morning) to allow commuters and others who work a variety of shifts to vote before they go to work.

    Rebecca

  3. For the most part, Plainfield School Board candidates run as part of a slate, which strikes me as more a political gesture than an ideological or educational statement. It makes sense that Plainfield and Elizabeth boards would want April elections- the school board machines in both districts have an easier time of it because their messages have less competition at that time of year, and greatly benefit from the sparse voter turnout. Voting for the budget is a plus, but not that great considering the low turnout or Abbott classification. In Abbott districts like Plainfield taxpayers only foot 20% of the budget, whereas elsewhere they pay 80%. It is always easier to vote ‘yes’ when it’s other peoples money we’re talking about. Granted, there are positives and negatives for elections held at either point. Rather than leave the decision making in the hands of unilateral action by either a 7-person City Council or a 9-person School Board, put the question to voters on the ballot in a binding referendum. Let the 20,000 or so registered voters in the city decide for themselves.

  4. The truth is with the mayor appointing a superintendent there might be a better shot in landing the best. We need to start competing with our surrounding town. A rating of 2 is bad for every property owner and families with kids in plainfield public schools and even the Campbell’s themselves( more houses to be sold).

  5. Thanks David for your thoughts and insight into this highly charged issue. With each election there are pros and cons, positives and negatives. The primary focus of every election should be about the people. How they will benefit? What is best for them? However, when all is said and done it is the taxpayers who bear the brunt of the burden for decisions made. In recent elections voter turnout has been extremely low. Why? Because people are experiencing voter apathy. The political rhetoric, the inability for elected officials to get along, the broken promises, the nasty mudslinging, to name a few, are a deterrent for many voters. I viewed the change from April to November election for the School Board as a political move at the time and power was taken away from the voters. I say give power back to the people (taxpayers) since they are paying for it anyway. Whatever decision is made I hope it is beneficial to all.

  6. Great article David! People can spin it however they like but at the end of the day this is another political power grab by the Mayor. The Mayor wanted to have appointment power of the planning division, took legal action to get appointment power of Pld’s representative in PARSA, and now wants to appoint the BOE Superintendent. I constant need for control shows an inability to motivate others to work with you. Newark’s Mayor said it best “Just because I’m involved in it doesn’t mean I have to be in charge of it,”

  7. I support BOE elections in April. And I would like to see mailers sent to Plainfielder’s by the League of Women Voters stating what each candidate’s specific intentions are based on a carefully constructed questionnaire. The reason we have low voter turnout is that Plainfielders are given no real information about the candidates. Propaganda like advertisements in the mail serve no purpose for the voter.

  8. I have some questions –

    1- Why is this Mayor attacked for grabbing power, and Jerry Green, who also had his BOE slate prominently displyed, is not?

    2 – Why is there a mention of the Democratic and Republican machine, and no mention of the BOE machine, which wants just as much power and control as the political parties?

    3 – If this is the most important election, why do only less than 1,000 people vote, and why would you not welcome the fact that more people pay attention to the BOE election in November than in April?

    4 – Why is six figures not a big deal to you? Mrs. Campbell is always looking for money through other venues to supplement the $170,000,000 plus budget, so why is this BOE so willing to spend 100K if you need money?

    5 – Why doesn’t anyone do their homework when accusing? The Mayor cannot appoint a superintendent unless the charter or legislation is changed. I don’t read that anywhere

    Whether Democrat, Republican or BOE, the goal is to gain power and control. Unfortunately, while you state figures about Plainfield schools improving it comes after 30 years! Which says to me that, as usual in Plainfield, the cry of “our children” is a political ploy and nothing more.

    • It’s been a while since I responded to a comment, but this is the most absurd response that I’ve gotten in quite a while.

      Most of my posts here are not related to electoral politics, nor are they commentary on anything local. When I do express opinion on local issues, people agree, or disagree. I’m happy to start a general dialogue by telling exactly how I feel on a given issue – even though it opens me up to criticism that most people do not care for.

      I even show the problem from different angles, and those who disagree are allowed to express themselves. Not many people who are elected and face resultant criticism let any adversarial comments through. I merely want the best for the school system from which I am a product, in the city in which I was born and raised.

      In this post, all of my points seem to have gone over your head, Jeanette Criscione. Let me clarify.

      You really think that I let Jerry Green off the hook here? You can’t believe that. Not with how I’ve criticized Mr Green for not only BOE power grabs, but a myriad of other things. There is a certain segment of blog readers who only appreciate my political commentary on Jerry Green, and little else – and who are infatuated with the Assemblyman. I’m not one of them, and I damn sure don’t cater to that crowd. Plainfield moves on without Jerry Green as its Democratic Chair, and the same critiques I levied upon Mr Green can be levied upon his successor, if appropriate.

      Mapp, not Green, is the only one recorded saying that he’d like to control the schools in a recent interview. That is not relevant to a current Board of Education member? Of course it is. And of course it would take legislation for him to be able to do this. Does that make his desire any less relevant?

      “BOE machine” – as if Plainfielders don’t have the right to work together and organize in their communities for a non-partisan election, or any election for that matter. The fact remains that BOE elections were created to give the people a voice separate from the elections for partisan office. Plainfield, in its November elections, has run increasingly far from that intent. At this point I’m repeating myself. Re-read what I wrote.

      Six figures is certainly a big deal. Eight thousand dollars is a big deal to a Board member, and we spend a lot of time trying to get the most bang for our buck. I personally have gone after, and am involved in, grants and other funds. I also serve as finance chairman. Nevertheless, as with anything you weigh the cost versus the benefit. I made my case in the piece.

      I also was VERY clear in both of my BOE campaigns that I fully supported a move back to April. Read the LWV questionnaires. In effect, this was a “campaign promise” for lack of a better term. My beliefs were clear and there should be no surprise from informed voters like yourself.

      There you go.

      No need to respond.

      • Clarification – I never thought you were infatuated with Jerry, or anyone, for that matter. I disagree with your stand on moving the election to April, and my concerns were expressed.

    • I don’t believe that this move helps the “people” of Plainfield, but it helps the Campbell’s power move greatly. I just don’t buy it, but there is much said by Pro-Plainfield that is true. David, I am very disappointed in you. I hope you don’t make me more sorry I voted for you.

    • Great Question, Jim. Anyone is, and should be, able to participate (as a poll worker, supporter, donor, endorser, or otherwise) in both partisan and non-partisan elections. Being involved in the BOE – as a member – does not preclude anyone from those activities. I myself have worked on other elections, and may do so going forward.

      The move to November, unfortunately, allowed (created?) “bundling” of BOE candidacy and candidacy for other offices. It certainly creates a temptation. In April, it’s an impossibility.

      Non-partisan City Council and Mayoral elections, in cities that have them, almost never take place in June, nor in November. It’s a clear contradiction. If we remove the non-partisan designation from the BOE, then November elections make sense.

      I would be against removing such a designation – for the reasons I gave in the post.

      • So you feel it’s okay for your BOE ‘team’, ‘slate’, ‘machine’, let us just call it a party, to run candidates for political office but it’s not okay for a Political Officer’s party to run candidates for the BOE. Seems hypocritical to me.

      • Never said that. Re-read. I said it’s fine for anyone to be involved in BOE. It just shouldn’t be on the same day as partisan elections, and shouldn’t be under the banner of the Democratic or Republican parties.

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