Moving school board elections to November improved voter participation Tuesday, even though not all voters were aware of the change.
The April school board elections have historically had a very low voter turnout, typically about 12 percent. The state Legislature passed a law allowing school board elections to be held in November both to increase voter turnout and save money by not having to hold a separate election in April.
New Jersey School Boards Association officials had been worried that the presidential race would overshadow the local school board races. But even though some voters skipped over their school board candidates without casting a vote, the number of residents who did vote was far higher than totals tallied in previous April elections based on early returns in local districts.
A random sampling of about 20 residents voting at the Fernwood Avenue Middle School in Egg Harbor Township found about half did not realize the school board election was on the ballot until they got their sample or went to vote. Most just didn’t vote, but a few people said they knew a couple of the candidates so they voted for them.
Other residents were very aware of the race, and made a point to vote.
“It’s very important to us,” Jim Walsh said as he and his wife, Barbara, left the school. “We are very concerned about the schools and the taxes here.”
Overall, residents said they thought including the school boards on the November ballot was a good idea because more people do come out to vote then. While some thought the presidential race did draw attention away from the local races, others thought having a presidential election this year raised awareness that the school board election had moved to November.
“You get a lot more voters out when there’s a presidential election,” Erik Schodnoff said.
Pete Castellano, who previously served on the Egg Harbor Township Board of Education for 10 years and was re-elected Tuesday, said the change in voting brought more participation but also more partisanship.
“There is a little inherent conflict there trying to run two types of races simultaneously on the very same day on the very same ballot,” he said.
Castellano said that influence was clear in the amount of money being spent in the race.
“There was more spending than you would have seen in an April election,” he said. “You saw how many signs were out there and the mailers.”
The move to November is voluntary, and statewide about 85 percent of school boards voted to make the switch. Locally, school boards in Atlantic City, Bridgeton and Hammonton kept their elections in April this year, saying they wanted to see how the new process played out in November and also wanted local voters to have a say on the school budget.
Under the new law, voters do not vote on the budget in November unless it exceeds the state 2 percent cap. Statewide, only three districts asked voters for extra funds.
Ballot questions to reduce the size of their local school boards easily passed in Sea Isle City and Upper Deerfield Township.
Sea Isle City will reduce its school board from nine members to five. The district has closed its school and sends all students to Ocean City. Upper Deerfield will reduce the board from nine members to seven.
Staff Writer Wallace McKelvey contributed to this story.
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