Newark voters decided Tuesday that the power to choose school board members should remain in their hands, not the mayor’s.
In a referendum held during Tuesday’s midterm elections, voters overwhelmingly opted for an elected school board over one appointed by the mayor. Their decision comes less than a year after the state ended its decades-long takeover of the district, putting the nine-member board back in charge of New Jersey’s largest school system and its nearly $1 billion budget.
Statewide, voters narrowly authorized the state to borrow $500 million to pay for the expansion of vocational programs, school security upgrades, and improvements to schools’ water infrastructure. The money for career training will only go to county-run schools and colleges — a boon to those schools, but a potential threat to the district if it leads more students to opt for vocational-technical schools over traditional high schools.
As a result of Newark’s school-board referendum, which was required by state law, voters will continue to elect board members and approve the district’s budget. That outcome was widely expected. The Newark Teachers Union and prominent politicians — including Mayor Ras Baraka, who championed the district’s return to local control — had all urged voters to stick with an elected board.
In a pre-election message posted on the city’s website, Baraka said that allowing the mayor to handpick board members would give him “enormous direct power over education in Newark.”
“I do not want that power,” he said. “I want the people to have that power.”
Also on Tuesday, New Jersey voters re-elected U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, over his Republican rival, Bob Hugin. The high-profile race, which flooded the airwaves with bitter attack ads, drew a large number of voters to the polls despite heavy rain throughout the day.
However, some Newark voters said they were surprised to find questions about school funding and board elections on the ballot when they arrived at their polling sites. Debora Walker, a poll worker at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Newark’s Central Ward, said she had not seen any ads or information about the two education-focused questions before Nov. 6.
“I didn’t hear anything about any question,” she said. “Just a lot of mudslinging.”
In February, the state put Newark’s school board back in charge of the district, ending 22 years of state control when the board had only advisory powers. Now, the board is once again responsible for selecting the superintendent and overseeing district spending, hiring, and policymaking.
When districts return to local control, state law mandates that voters be given the choice between an elected or mayor-appointed board. Proponents say that granting mayors control of schools forces them to prioritize education because it hitches their political fortunes to the fate of the school system.
But the vast majority of boards nationally and in New Jersey are elected, which most voters are reluctant to change. Newark’s board has been elected since 1982 — and many observers doubted that voters would trade it for an appointed board just as the city regained control of its schools.
“At this particular time, people have a heightened sense of, ‘No, we’re not letting anyone else be in charge,’” said Mary Bennet, a former Newark principal who led a group that advised the district on its return to local control. With an elected board, voters will know that “what they say counts — and people they elected, they can hold them accountable for how they sit up there and vote.”
The statewide ballot measure that voters approved allows the state to issue $500 million in bonds.
Of that amount, $100 million will go to districts to improve the quality of their schools’ drinking water. In 2016, Newark was forced to replace pipes and water fountains in dozens of schools after their water was found to contain high levels of lead. Because most of that remediation has already been completed, it’s unclear how much of the $100 million Newark would be eligible to receive.
Another $350 million is allocated for county vocational programs and school security upgrades, such as new alarm systems. The bond act does not say how that amount will be divided.
The county vocational-technical schools will use their share of the money to expand programs that let students study trades, such as manufacturing and medical technology, while also earning high-school diplomas. In 2017, about 10 percent of Newark students chose to attend one of Essex County’s four “vo-tech” schools over one of the city’s district or charter high schools.
While the bond act was being crafted, some critics noted that it does not set aside any money for the vocational programs that some district high schools offer. Vocational programs at traditional high schools are open to all students, whereas vo-tech schools screen applicants based on their grades, test scores, and other factors.
Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical Schools, said the county schools desperately need more funding to meet the demand from students. Last year, the schools had nearly 17,000 more applicants than available seats.
“Enrollment has been growing,” she said, “and the vocational schools are turning away more students than they can admit.”
This story has been updated with results of the statewide bond referendum.