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TRENTON, NJ—It’s been hard to keep track of when Perth Amboy has been planning to hold its next school board election, as warring factions within the Bay City fought over the election date during a rollercoaster of a year.
At several points in 2016, Perth Amboy’s school district looked like it was going to be among the select few communities in the state with April school elections.
But a political powerplay overruled the city’s Board of Education (BOE) for the second time in just five months, as Republican Governor Chris Christie signed a little-known bill into law on August 18, retroactively overturning a BOE decision to hold its next election in April 2017 instead of November 2016.
Three days before the BOE vote, the State Senate had given its final stamp of approval to the proposed law that would prevent Perth Amboy–and every other district in NJ–from switching its elections back to the third Tuesday in April, when they were traditionally held prior to 2012.
All that was needed to complete the powerplay was Christie’s signature, which he provided seven weeks later.
Unless something changes, the November 8 school board election matchups are already set for Perth Amboy, and the retroactive switcheroo effectively duped potential candidates and prevented them from filing to run for office.
The bill, S2099, bans all NJ school districts from switching their November elections back to April, and creates a 10-member commission to study the issue.
A representative of the NJ School Boards Association (NJSBA) had called the proposal “a manifest injustice that would have a deleterious effect on local boards of education, municipalities and local taxpayers.”
The group argued that the law would disenfranchise Perth Amboy, and any other district that might take action to move the election back to April before the bill was signed.
“As an association that represents all boards of education, we believe that local choice is important,” NJSBA’s John Burns told a State Senate committee on May 5.
“The key to the current law is it preserves the choice of the local community to determine when it wants to hold its annual school election,” Burns testified. “[The bill] removes local control of the school election date from Boards of Education and the taxpayers that they serve.”
As Burns had warned, the law’s enactment immediately unleashed renewed uncertainty over the next Perth Amboy BOE election, and may well have limited the choices that voters will have on Election Day.
“NJSBA is very concerned about the enforcability of [the retroactive provision in S2099]… For this bill to reach back to a date beyond the effective date of this proposed legislation would undo a legitimate action permitted under current law,” Burns told the Senate Committee on State Government, Wagering, Tourism, & Historic Preservation.
“Such retroactivity creates uncertainty and raises questions of due process and fundamental fairness for the parties involved.”
“We would say that the date should be the effective date of the legislation itself,” Burns explained at the June 20 hearing on the bill. “To reach back beyond that, in one sense, disenfranchises those communities, who choose between June 1 and whatever the effective date of the bill to move [the elections].”
The passage of the bill amounts to a victory for Democrat State Senator Joe Vitale, who represents Perth Amboy and sponsored the bill along with Senator Shirley Turner, and Assemblyman Troy Singleton.
Vitale said that it was “easier to manipulate” school elections in April because of the low voter turnout.
He also said that the Perth Amboy BOE “tried to move the date from November back to April, but they did so in a matter that violated the law,” citing a March 2016 ruling by Superior Court Judge Arthur Bergman.
But Vitale broke his promise to fully remove the retroactive provision in the law, the one that NJSBA had strongly opposed.
“I’m going to ask our friends at [the Office of Legislative Services]–offerred an amendment today–so that we will remove that lookback date,” said Vitale.
But the retroactivity provision was not actually removed.
Because two Republican legislators had already “left the building” and had only agreed to vote in favor of the bill without amendments, the committee released the bill without changes, and Vitale agreed to make the amendment later in the process.
The amendment made on the floor of the Senate did not remove the controversial provision, but rather changed the date that the retroactive invalidation would begin to June 1.
The move spared Asbury Park the chaos of undoing their entire April 2016 election, but left Perth Amboy in the lurch.
It’s just the latest in a series of political irregularities to negatively impact Perth Amboy and disenfranchise its citizens.
Last year, the city was forced to hold a do-over election for City Council after concerns about voter fraud in a November 2015 race.
Then, in January 2016, the BOE held a special meeting to vote on the switch to April elections, proposing to cut short the terms of all nine board members by six months.
But critics raised concerns that the poorly-attended special meeting where the vote had occurred was held at 5pm on very short notice. The BOE voted against giving members of the public who arrived late an opportunity to comment on agenda items, incuding the resolution to move the election.
The Perth Amboy City Council got involved on February 16, asserting they had the power to move the election back to November, and voting to do so 4-0.
The matter ended up in Middlesex County Superior Court, where a judge ruled in March that the election should remain in November.
So, when the BOE tried for a second time to switch to April elections this June, this time opting to extend their terms by six months, at least one board member wanted some assurance that their decision would stand up to a challenge.
“Are you certain that we are within the correct time frame this time? That we won’t hear back from the state that we are in the wrong timeframe?” BOE member Obdulia Gonzalez asked the board’s attorney. “I want to be clear that we’re good.”
“I cannot promise you. It may make its way to different courts,” said BOE attorney Jessica Kleen, who noted that other districts had passed resolutions moving their elections back to April.
Underscoring the uncertainty was a curious decision by the three BOE members up for re-election this year.
Even though they had all voted unanimously to push the election to April 2017 less than a month earlier, BOE President Samuel Lebreault, Vice President Israel Varela, and board member Anthony Bermudez played it both ways and quietly filed petitions to run in November.
Varela’s petition, however, includes the wrong date for the election: April 8, 2016.
Unless the powers that be extend the deadline and accept additonal candidate petitions, there will be eight names on the ballot, including the incumbents.
The incumbent candidates, at least for now, are set to face off with five opponents: Randy Convery, Ruben Cruz, Hattie Harrell, Junior Iglesia, and Tashi L. Vazquez. The top three vote-getters will win three-year terms on the volunteer board.
Convery, Iglesia, and Vazquez filed their petitions on May 23. Cruz and Harrell filed their petitions on June 13.
The only people to file petitions after the BOE voted on June 30 to move the election were Bermudez, Lebreault, and Varela.
Presently, 97% of the elected school boards in New Jersey hold their elections in November.
But, this year, for the first time since November school elections became an option, some communities have been evaluating whether or not to switch back to separate elections in April.
In December, Plainfield’s BOE decided to switch back to April elections, joining 17 other districts including New Brunswick. One month later, Asbury Park also opted to change back to April.
As local debates that have played out across the state, advocates for November elections usually argue that combining the elections saves taxpayer money, results in more people participating, and allows districts to avoid having to cut budgets after they get voted down by the people of the district.
Generally, supporters of the April elections argue there is a good reason they are held in April: They keep them separate from being overshadowed by high-visibility partisan elections such as the one for United States President.
“Personally, I have felt that every year the Board of Education becomes more of a political football than the year before,” said Gonzalez, whose husband serves on the City Council. “And I think that the April election gives the community an opportunity to focus on education…. without the interference of other politics and other politicians.”
Advocates for the April elections also say they better coincide with the traditional September-June school year, keep appropriate distance between partisan politics and school systems, and give voters a chance to vote on the school budget.
“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,” wrote David Rutherford, a Plainfield BOE member who voted to switch back.
“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.”
But state legislators, all of whom fall within the two-party system, seemed befuddled as why anyone would want to switch back to having separate elections during hearings on S2099 and its counterpart in the State Assembly, A3728.
“Is there any logical reason why a district might want to choose to go back to the old system that your aware of?” asked Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon.
“Two communities… decided that their November experiment was, for whatever reason, worth going back to the April timeframe,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, the Chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee.
McKeon characterized the bill as a “two-year cooling off period” to allow “a blue-ribbon panel” to evaluate the best course of action at the state level.
“Clinton is now considering [switching back to April elections],” said McKeon, before voting to approve the controversial bill on June 20. “Perth Amboy would have done it, but they messed something up procedurally, so they’re not in a position to do that, certainly for this election.”
But ten days later, the Perth Amboy BOE made its second attempt to get its annual elections moved to April, and to anyone watching the meeting, it seemed like it was successful.
It’s not clear if the BOE was aware of the pending state legislation at the time. But they made no mention of it as they voted to move the elections.
“We need to have a real clean election for our community,” said Lebreault. “It’s all about that: the best choices for the community will be in April.”
But, now the election will be anything but clean, as Christie and the state Legislature have put the city in an unprecedented situation: forcing them to hold an election, even though the deadline for candidates to file already passed 24 days prior to the election being scheduled.
The shrewd move by the BOE incumbents raises obvious questions about how potential challengers could have been expected to file petitions to run, given that the incumbents were acting as if the election was going to be delayed.
The deadline to run in November passed on July 25, the same day that the three incumbents whose seats were up for election turned their paperwork in to the Middlesex County Clerk’s Office.
It’s not clear why County Clerk Elaine Flynn accepted the petitions, given that the election had been cancelled by the very same people that were submitting to run in the race.
Flynn, a native of Perth Amboy, is currently in her fifth five-year term as County Clerk. She is the first woman to hold the office in county history.
But Flynn has previously been implicated in election funny business, when her office was partly responsible for botching New Brunswick’s first-ever school election in January 2013.
For the final 25 days leading up to the deadline, it was apparent to everyone including the Middlesex County Clerk’s Office that there simply was not going to be a 2016 school board election in Perth Amboy. Unless one knew of the proposed legislation working its way through Trenton, another outcome seemed impossible.
When New Brunswick Today requested copies of all school board petitions, the County Clerk’s Office initially responded by omitting Perth Amboy petitions from the documents they turned over.
This newspaper only obtained the copies of the eight additional Perth Amboy petitions, which revealed the incumbents had reason to believe the election might not get moved after all, after we insisted on seeing them.
Voters in 23 other Middlesex County communities will chose from between a total of 108 candidates running for openings on the various school boards that hold November elections.
For more than a century, all of the state’s elected school boards were chosen in April, separate and apart from other local, county, state, and federal elections.
But, following legislation passed in 2011 and signed into law by Christie in 2012, nearly all of the New Jersey’s school districts opted to switch to holding the elections in November, putting them on the same ballot as the other partisan races.
Making the switch enabled board members to add an extra six months to their terms, and meant that their districts would also no longer have to ask voters to approve of their budgets by way of an annual ballot question.
As cities like Perth Amboy and Plainfield have learned, the law Christie signed on January 12, 2012 had at least one big problem: it gave the power to move the election to multiple entities, including both Boards of Education and local governing bodies like City Councils.
The law was–and still is–ambiguous on what happens when a BOE and a Council are opposed on when to hold the election.
Voters had reason to believe that the next election would be held in November when 2016 began. Since 2012, school board elections there have been held alongside lots of other elections on the November general election ballot.
But that was before January 12, when the BOE unanimously voted 8-0 to move the election up to April 2016, cutting their own terms short by half a year.
“If I want to run again, I have to start mounting a campaign right now,” said Samuel Lebreault, the BOE President, claiming that the decision to move the election up did not favor him.
Four years earlier to the day, Christie signed the bill that allowed towns to deviate from the longstanding practice of April elections.
Perth Amboy–and the vast majority of NJ school districts–quickly opted into the November elections, and were required to keep them in place for at least four election cycles.
The city government, which previously held its own non-partisan elections in May, followed suit by switching to November elections, but keeping them non-partisan, thanks to a similar enabling law.
As it turned out, if Judge Bergman had ruled in favor of the BOE and allowed the April 2016 election to move forward, Lebreault, Varela, and Bermudez would have faced no opposition.
The latest development in the election saga is also a big win for incumbent Mayor Wilda Diaz, who is currently running for a third term in the November election, despite pledging to limit herself to two terms during her first speech after taking office as Mayor.
Pairing her election with the BOE race is also likely to increase her influence over the city’s struggling school system.
Diaz cited the cost of holding the separate April election in her argument against holding April elections.
“We, as an administration, will not burden the taxpayers with this unnecessary expense. Our goal is to serve the public and it is in the voters’ best interest to have a November election,” Diaz was quoted as saying on MyCentralJersey.com.
“I believe that we need to save money, no matter what,” said Diaz at the February City Council meeting. “We need to encourage voter participation and I don’t think that’s happening turning the election to April.”
She also took issue with the way the BOE rolled out its decision to make the switch.
“Changing it in such a short period of time, it’s a disservice to the voters for those who would like to vote for the Board of Ed.”
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.