New, returning candidates to face off in Newark’s school board race this year

One person stands outside of a voting booth while one person is using the voting booth in a room with large picture frames on the wall in the background.
Newark voters will decide on four new school board members when they head to the polls on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (Patrick Wall / Chalkbeat)

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Newark voters will see a mix of new and returning contenders in April’s school board election, where they will choose representatives for four seats on the nine-member Board of Education.

Among the 10 candidates, four are incumbents running to keep their board seats, four are returning candidates, and two are newcomers. Typically, residents also cast their vote for next school year’s budget but a new state law eliminated that requirement for the first time this year.

The candidates who win a spot in April will be tasked with deciding policies in New Jersey’s largest school system, which is home to roughly 40,000 students. The board is also tasked with holding the superintendent accountable and, last year, approved a $1.3 billion budget.

The winning candidates will have to address the public school’s most pressing issues such as academic recovery efforts, support for the city’s growing population of English language learners and students with disabilities, district expansions, and new schools, among other topics.

The board has recently faced criticism from the community over transparency in the district’s decision to remove a young adult novel about a Palestinian boy and faces demands to release a report on the cultural dynamics at a magnet high school.

Three winning candidates will serve three-year terms and one will complete an unfinished one-year term left by former board president Asia Norton.

The order of names appearing on the April ballot was chosen in a drawing on Wednesday and is subject to final approval by the Essex County Clerk’s office this week. The candidate running for the one-year term will be included on the ballot in April, said business administrator Valerie Wilson during the ballot drawing.

Co-vice presidents Dawn Haynes and Vereliz Santana are running for reelection, along with newly appointed board member Helena Vinhas, on the “Moving Newark Schools Forward” slate. When they were elected to the board in 2018 and 2021 respectively, Haynes and Santana ran on that slate. Vinhas was appointed to the board earlier this year along with Kanileah Anderson, who is running individually on the “Newark Schools Forward” platform.

Historically, the “Moving Newark Schools Forward” slate has won every election since 2016 and seven current board members formed part of that group during their elections. The slate garners support from state and local politicians, including Mayor Ras Baraka and state Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Ruiz every year.

Returning candidate Che J.T. Colter is running alongside newcomer Muta El-amin on the “It Takes a Village” slate, a duo of community advocates. Latoya Jackson, Sheila Montague, and Jimmie White are also running again. They are joined by first-time candidate Debra Salters who ran in the 2021 general election for New Jersey General Assembly District 29.

City leaders have long raised concerns about voter turnout in the annual school board election that historically has seen around 3% to 4% of registered voters participating. Newark anticipated a new wave of voters this year after the city council unanimously approved an ordinance in January to lower the voting age to 16 for school board elections. But those voters will participate in next year’s election due to state and county delays in getting voter registration machines ready by April.

Advocates say they plan to use the extra time to civically engage and educate city youth who are already interested in the election and reach those who are not yet.

Haynes, a long-time community advocate, was elected in 2018 and is one of the longest-serving board members. Vereliz, the director of lawmaker engagement at the bipartisan organization The States Project, joined the board in 2021 to replace a board member who died suddenly the prior year.

Newly appointed members Anderson, a community advocate, and Vinhas, a jewelry store owner and mother of Science Park High School students, were sworn in at a ceremony during January’s school board meeting. They filled two vacancies on the board left by former president Norton, who abruptly resigned at the beginning of the school, and former member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas, who won a seat on the Essex County Board of Commissioners in November. Their appointments came after the Board of Education refused to swear in a charter school teacher chosen to fill one of the empty seats.

Jackson, a first-time candidate last year, says she feels excited to run again now that she has a better understanding of the election process. She is a beauty salon owner and mother of a Newark Public School student and is focused on special education issues and empowering parents.

Colter, who ran for school board in 2018 and Essex County Commissioner in 2017 said he is running because he also wants to see more parent involvement in district decisions. Board members make financial decisions for the district, which Colter says, is important for parents to be involved in. He is joined by El-amin, a first-time school board candidate. Colter and El-amin are running against Montague, a three-time school board candidate and former mayoral candidate, on the “Open the Door” platform.

White, a two-time school board candidate, says he wants to reach more people in the community. Salters, a community advocate, will also appear on the April ballot under the “Saving Our Children” platform.

Newark and Irvington are the only districts in Essex County participating in the April school board election. Earlier this year, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill that removed the vote for school budgets for districts participating in the April election. The district could call for a special election if it proposes more than a 2% change in the city’s tax levy.

City residents can vote in person on April 16 at their designated polling location or vote by mail if they register for that option seven days before the election. Ballots must be postmarked no later than April 16 and must be received that day before polls close.

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Jessie Gomez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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