Newark voters will cast ballots Tuesday in an historic school board election — one where the biggest question may be less “Who will win?” and more “Do people care?”

It’s the first election since the board regained authority over the city schools in February after more than two decades under state control. The three winners will join the nine-member board in selecting a new school superintendent this spring, giving them the opportunity to help steer the course of New Jersey’s largest school system.

While 13 candidates are running, only three have the backing of a powerful coalition composed of the mayor, a North Ward councilman, and the charter-school sector. The political alliance has given those candidates — Yambeli Gomez, Dawn Haynes, and Asia Norton — a strong advantage, while reducing the race’s drama since political factions that used to compete in the board elections are now working together.

As a result, the big question hanging over this election is less about its outcome and more about public interest.

Voter turnout has traditionally been low in the board race — last year, just 5 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Now, observers are watching closely to see whether the recent return to local control after the 22-year state takeover will inspire more residents to get involved.

“This is a publicly viewed election,” said Newark Trust for Education Executive Director Ronald Chaluisán during a candidate forum hosted by the Trust this month.

“If there is not a marked increase in the number of people who take on the responsibility of having their voices heard in the electoral process,” he went on, then the state takeover and return to local control “will be seen as for naught.”

Whether you’re preparing to vote today or waiting for the results, here are three stories to help you understand this election:

 

  1. The power players: The powerful political alliance backing a slate of candidates this year has done so twice before — and won handily each time. One of the alliance members, the city’s charter sector, spent more than $174,000 on last year’s race through its political arm — though that group, the Parent Coalition for Excellent Education, has mostly gone quiet since its leader stepped down in November. Find out more about each of the three members of that alliance and how they chose which candidates to endorse this year.
  2. The issues: The candidates met at a forum earlier this month where they discussed the big issues facing the district — and were interrupted by protesters. While the discussion rarely delved into the weeds of policy, there was nearly universal agreement among the candidates about one hot-button issue: The city’s school-enrollment system is broken.
  3. The mayor: Mayor Ras Baraka doesn’t have any direct authority over the schools, but he can still influence them. He chose a City Hall staffer, Dawn Haynes, to be one of the members of the alliance-backed slate. And he has floated a plan to bring in outside experts to help guide the school board’s policymaking. As we wrote in our story about that plan, for Baraka: “It will be a delicate dance between respecting the board’s hard-won authority and ensuring that the schools do not backslide under local control.”

Finally, the Newark Trust for Education has information on all 13 candidates here. You can find your polling place here. And you can sign up for alerts from Chalkbeat Newark and our weekly newsletter here.