By the July 31 deadline, some school districts in South Jersey still lacked sufficient candidates for all the open seats on local boards of education. In other districts, there were just enough candidates, but no competition.
Of the 16 municipalities in Cape May County, four have open seats where no candidate is listed on the ballot. In the entire county, only one municipality, Wildwood, has a contested election, and that’s for one seat. The problem is not isolated to Cape May County. In Atlantic County, of 18 municipalities with school elections this year, there are six open seats without candidates and 16 uncontested races.
So why aren’t more people running for the local elected office?
Explanations differ, from population size to tax base to a change in the nomination deadline, but no one has pinpointed why.
Statewide, the ratio of candidates to open seats was 1.29 to 1 in 2016, New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said. Although that’s up slightly from 2015’s ratio of 1.22 to 1, it is still down from 2011 — the last year all board elections were in April. That year, it was 1.44 to 1.
Belluscio thinks the date change for the school board elections from April to November affected candidate turnout, as they are now required to submit nomination petitions in July.
“It takes place in the middle of the summer. This year, it was July 31 — the height of summer vacation season,” he said.
The NJSBA wants the deadline to be moved to September, but said county clerks oppose a later date.
Belluscio said other reasons for lack of participation could be the time commitment being a board member takes, or lack of residents with children in school.
“Of course, there are a number of non-parents and older citizens currently serving on school boards. The success of the public schools is in the interest of the entire community, and the schools are funded by the entire community,” he said.
Avalon and Stone Harbor school boards both have two seats up for election this year, but only one candidate from each of the adjoining boroughs. Lois Scarpa, of Avalon, and James Gallagher, of Stone Harbor, were the only candidates to file petitions for the three-year terms by deadline.
Scarpa, 69, said the lack of volunteers to fill the open seats is concerning, but suggested it might be due to the district’s miniscule size and high property values.
“School board members traditionally are parents who have children in the school and are interested in making it the best possible place for their children,” said Scarpa, whose children all went through the district. “It’s just too expensive for young families to live here, so that hampers the population in the school, and it hampers the number of volunteers you have in a community.”
John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University and a former school board member, said it is probably due in part, at least, to a lack of interest from increasingly smaller pools of candidates.
“It’s the fact that New Jersey has this bizarre number of school districts,” Weingart said. “The state of Maryland is roughly the same population, roughly the same geography, and has 23 school districts.”
He said while some school districts have intense competition for spots on the board — Egg Harbor Township this year has 10 candidates for three open seats — others such as West Wildwood, Mullica Township, Folsom and Longport have tiny communities to draw from.
Egg Harbor Township Board of Education President Lou Della Barca said the size of the township definitely plays a role in bringing so many candidates to the table.
“Over the last several campaigns, five to six candidates have run for the three board positions,” he said.
Della Barca, whose seat is not up for re-election, attributed this year’s large turnout to continued growth in the district and local tax and policy issues.
Scarpa, who is seeking her second term on Avalon’s board, said she never even intended to be a board member. Just like this year, in 2014, when she was first elected, there was only one candidate for two open seats — and it wasn’t her.
“I was a write-in because they had no one to fill the seat,” she said.