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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Members of New Brunswick’s school board will be elected next year for the first time in city history, thanks to the passage of a referendum that will end the mayor-appointed board of education.
According to results released today, more than three weeks after the election was held, Middlesex County Clerk Elaine Flynn certified the referendum’s passage by a vote of 3,407 to 3,309.
The victory represents a huge win for city activists, who have put the question to voters five times since Mayor James Cahill took office in 1991. It also represents Cahill’s first time on the losing side of a referendum in his 22 years as the city’s chief executive.
The margin of victory was similar to the margin of defeat for a 2009 referendum that pitted many of the same forces against each other. That time, the mayor and his supporters prevailed, defeating the citizen-initiated ballot question by just 80 votes out of more than 5,000.
This time around, the margin was slightly bigger and the grassroots activists supporting the change won by 98 votes, earning 50.7% of support from the 6,716 voters who voted on the question.
Voters who cast ballots the traditional way, in an electronic voting machine at their proper polling place, narrowly opposed the question 3,019-2,903, leading the Daily Targum to declare the opponents of an elected board victorious.
As we reported later that day, the margin shrunk to just 13 votes after the first mail-in ballots were included.
In total, 11,078 city residents cast ballots, and nearly 40% did not vote one way or the other on the question.
But the hundreds of voters who cast paper ballots, either by mail or on election day by way of provisional ballots, proved to be far more likely to vote on the question, and supported its passage by a 3:2 margin.
Their ballots were added to the totals after the county held several hearings of the election board to determine which one deserved to be counted, including one contentious hearing where elected school board supporters packed the hearing room.
Ultimately, the “yes” vote was boosted by a net gain of 131 mail-in votes and 80 provisional votes, enough for supporters of an elected school board to enjoy a comfortable lead. Additionally, all three members of the US Armed Forces who voted on the question via military ballots voted in favor of the elected school board.
The effort to change to an elected board was spearheaded by Yolonda Baker, a Democratic Committeewoman, who along with the author of this article, briefly ran for city council earlier this year, before withdrawing from the race to pursue the ballot question.
Baker released a statement today: “Now it’s time for the work to begin. The foundation for a successful school district can now be set. It is up to all New Brunswick residents to ensure all students receive the best education and that accountability is enforced throughout the New Brunswick School District.”
A spokesman for Mayor James Cahill did not respond to an email request for comment. He told The Daily Targum, “I look forward to working with board members, school administrators, teachers, parents and residents in our continuing effort to make New Brunswick’s schools the best they can be.”
Baker’s successful referendum marks the first time a citizen-initiated referendum has been adopted since Cahill took office in 1991.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
The change means New Jersey is down to just 19 mayor-appointed boards of education remaining.
Since 1990, New Brunswick is the eleventh district where a successful referendum ended the mayor-appointed board. During the same time period, four districts ended the elections and switched to the appointed system.
Neighboring Edison Township switched to an elected school board in 1992, leaving New Brunswick as the last remaining district in Middlesex County with an appointed board.
But it’s still unclear exactly when the first school board elections will be held next year. Five seats will be up for election in 2013.
According to state law, the district will immediately switch to the elected system, but appointed board members will be permitted to finish their term on the board before their seats are put up for election.
The current seven-member board will be responsible for scheduling a special election in the coming months where voters will select the first two elected members of the board, which will have nine voting members under the new system.
Traditionally, a high school student also sits on the board, but does not have a vote.
Tentatively, the first regular election will be held in April for the appointed seats currently held by Benito Ortiz, John Krenos, and Patricia Sadowski.
However, a new state law may offer an opportunity for the current board, voters, or even the city council to move the elections to November. For the first time this year, districts were allowed to re-schedule their school elections to appear on the same ballot as the general election.
If the elections remain in April, which will occur if no action is taken, there will also be a vote to approve to reject the proposed school budget. However, if they are moved to November, no vote will be required on the budget if it represents an increase of 2% or less.
In 2014, the terms of board members Dale Caldwell and Emra Seawood will expire, followed by board president Edward Spencer and the board’s newest member Franchesca Rodriguez in 2015.
FIFTH TIME’S THE CHARM
In his third year as mayor, Jim Cahill was presented with a choice.
The year was 1993 and a cadre of community leaders had organized a petition drive in support of taking away Cahill’s power to appoint the school board. The group, which included a city councilman and assistant superintendent of schools, were prepared to passionately advocate the benefits of an elected board.
The Black Leadership Conference organized the petition drive and was comprised of many “heavy-hitters” including C. Roy Epps, president of the Civic League of Greater New Brunswick, Frank Bolden, a Johnson & Johnson vice president and board member for the New Brunswick Cultural Center, Ricardo Khan, artistic director and co-founder of Crossroads Theatre, City Councilman Bobbie Brown, Assistant Schools Superintendent Penelope Lattimer, and the Rev. Buster Soaries of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens.
The mayor said that he would support the will of the voters if the question were approved, but he still fought its passage.
“If the residents of the city would prefer an elected school board, I would have no objection to that,” he told the Star-Ledger that year.
Rather than cede control of the board, Cahill opted to defend the status quo, working with the local Democrat organization to create a political group, ironically-named the “Committee to Keep Politics out of Our Schools,” that paid for mailings voters urging the “no” vote on the question.
In a forum held on the issue, Ben Bucca, an appointed school board member, represented the committee, arguing that school elections would cause higher taxes and permit “special interests” to gain influence.
For his part, Cahill created an advisory committee to address the concerns of the petitioners, and pledged to appoint more parents to the board.
Cahill, Bucca, and other supporters of the status quo were ultimately successful in their efforts to keep the appointed board in 1993, and thrice more when the question was posed to voters in 1996, 1998, and 2000.
In 2003, after advocates for a rent control referendum discovered Cahill had illegally overcharged his own tenants, violating the existing law, Cahill agreed to adopt their proposal to strengthen the law before it was put to a vote.
The same activists came back with petitions to place three questions on the ballot, necesitating a special election in 2004. All three proposals–one for a community center, one to televise city council meetings, and a third to repeal a flyer ban–failed by a wide margin when the usual suspects opposed them.
And, in 2008, a movement to give voters a choice about how their city council is elected failed to secure a place on the ballot for their question, but pulled it off the following year.
The question proposed a change in the city’s form of a government to a system where a six of nine council members would be elected to represent a single ward that comprised one-sixth of the city.
When it finally came before voters in November 2009, it proved to be the closest to defeat Cahill’s organization has come in any of the eight citizen-initiated referenda he has opposed in his 22 years in office. After a recount, the referendum failed by just 80 votes.
When activists submitted petitions to put both the ward-based council and elected school board to voters in 1997, petitions were rejected for insufficient signatures by the City Clerk. A petition to de-prioritize enforcement of marijuana laws, which Cahill did not take a position on, was rejected for the same reason in 2010.
Aside from a 1992 primary, where two candidates not supported by the establishment support won seats on the five-member city council, Cahill has never before been on the losing side of a local election.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.