Tuesday’s meeting was Michelle CarneyRay-Yoder’s last as a member of the Egg Harbor Township school board.
Known to her students as Mrs. CRY, she was elected to the board in November but decided to step down after being appointed superintendent in Somers Point. Now, the district is accepting applications to temporarily fill the vacancy before a new member is elected in November.
Across the region, boards of education are faced with the same predicament year in and year out.
In last year’s general election, voters in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties were asked to fill 16 unexpired seats on local school boards, left open due to resignations or in some cases death.
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This year, a similar number of unexpired seats are expected to be available as the July 31 deadline to submit a nomination petition for the general election nears. Since last year’s deadline, there have been board vacancies in the Pleasantville, Hammonton, Southern Regional, Dennis Township, Cumberland Regional, Middle Township, Hamilton Township, Buena Regional and Ocean City school districts, to name a few.
Frank Belluscio, executive vice president of the New Jersey School Boards Association, said vacancies don’t necessarily create operational problems for local boards, unless they affect the board coming to a quorum. In that case, he said, the county superintendent can make an appointment.
Belluscio said school boards have 65 days to fill a vacancy, but how they do that is up to them.
“Sometimes a board will go through an application process, an interview process and make a decision. Filling the vacancy by the board requires a majority vote by the remaining board members,” he said.
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Belluscio said the organization doesn’t keep numbers on vacancies, but it does get requests for guidance on how to fill them each year.
In May, the Hammonton Board of Education had a vacancy due to the death of board member Sal Velardi. At the time, 2017 board candidate Erica Polito, who lost in November, had applied for the vacancy.
Polito argued that because she was the next highest vote-getter, she should be appointed. Instead, the board appointed Manuel Bermudez, a former board member, to fill the seat.
Board President Sam Mento III said the decision was based on a number of factors, including Bermudez’s ability to negotiate employee contracts. Polito, he said, had a conflict.
Mento, who has served on the board for seven years, including four as president, said he has had to fill two vacancies during his tenure. One of them was due to a member winning a seat on the Town Council.
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“It’s more than what place you’re in. … You want to find someone who has the time and commitment to make to the school board,” Mento said.
Belluscio said there are a number of qualifications that make a good board candidate.
“It has to be someone with a sincere interest in the education program, the education of all the students in the district,” he said. “You have to be willing and able to devote the time to board membership. It’s an unpaid position, but there’s a lot of work involved in it.”
He said the position also requires a lot of training and professional development, as well as policymaking.
“You have to recognize the role of the board as a policy-setting body and not an administrative body. You ensure that schools are well run, but you don’t run the schools,” he said.
Egg Harbor Township Board of Education President Pete Castellano said having a vacancy can affect morale, but not necessarily operations. He said that nonetheless, they are looking to fill the vacancy by the July 17 meeting and he expects a large pool of candidates. Resumes are due by July 10, and interviews will take place in open session.
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“It’s our belief that with a district our size, we need to have full complement,” he said.
Castellano lamented the loss of CarneyRay-Yoder, especially due to her educational experience.
“In Michelle’s case, she brought a lot of talent to the board, and it’s a big loss for us,” he said.