Falling off a Clifton in Local School Board Elections

Winning an election is often difficult.

So apparently is scheduling one.

Just ask the Clifton school board. Its action last month to move the school election from November back to its traditional date in April has been stopped by the state. At least for now.

Some background is needed.

For years, New Jersey held school elections in April. Voters elected board members and voted “yes,” or “no,” on the budget for the following school year.

Turnout was often abysmal.

Because of that – or more likely because school officials tired of voters occasionally rejecting school budgets – the state in 2012 gave districts the option of moving the school election to November.

There were a number of naysayers to this plan. They pointed out that school board candidates would likely get lost if they ran in the same election as mayors, state legislators and once every four years, gubernatorial and presidential candidates.

But over time, virtually every school district in the state made the change. Supporters said a fall vote would be cheaper and more voters would take part.

Of course, moving the election also meant voters would no longer automatically vote on the school budget. That was logistically impossible with a November vote on a budget that for all practical purposes would not commence until the following September.

School board members had to like that. Under the old system, the municipal governing body reviewed and usually recommended cuts in a defeated budget. That often led to hard feelings in the community.

So it was a bit surprising – although welcoming – last  month when the Clifton Board of Education after moving the school election to November a few years ago voted to move it back to April.

Gary Passenti, the board president, told The Record newspaper that the move would allow the community to get more involved.

And he also commented – apparently approvingly – that the switch would allow “citizens more say on school budgets.”

So all was set. The school election in Clifton would take place next April, not this November.

But wait a minute.

The state education department sent the district a missive saying the board could NOT hold its next election next April.

Why is that?

Well, Jeanette Marks, an interim executive county business official, said state law mandates that a school board must hold an election every year, which means within a 12-month period,

The last Clifton school election was November, 2017. So if the district moved this November’s election to April of 2019, there would be more than a year between elections. Or actually about 17 months – the gap between November, 2017 and April, 2019.

“The 2018 election must be held in November 2018 in order to hold the required annual election,” Marks’ letter said.

This kerfuffle was brought to our attention by school board member Fahim Abedrabbo, the only member to oppose moving the election from November. (One member abstained)

Abedrabbo further claimed that the school board’s attorney told Passaic County election officials that the district will not hold the election in November, the state’s position notwithstanding.

That may have been, but things have now changed.

A spokesperson for the election division of the Passaic County Clerk said Wednesday afternoon that the next Clifton school election will be held in November. She said letters to that affect have gone out to all relevant parties.

Case closed.

It still seems admirable that Clifton wanted to make the move back to April in the first place. There may not be that many voters, but most who do vote care about the district and school issues. That’s not the case in November.

One possible option for the district would be to hold a school election this fall and then hold another one in April, 2019.To do that, the district would need to inform election officials of the switch at least 85 days before the proposed April vote, which would be sometime in January.. That, of course, could disrupt the terms of some board members.

As we said, scheduling elections can be as hard as running in them.

Neither the Clifton school board president, nor its attorney were available for comment Wednesday afternoon.

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  • 1Prop

    The school budget vote was the only time taxpayers had an opportunity to voice their opinion on the largest portion of their property tax bills. Of course, defeated budgets were almost always restored by the local governing bodies or the state DOE, but at least voters could send a message. They should have a budget vote with the vote for board members in November. Of course that won’t happen because the NJEA opposes the idea of having more people participate in the budget vote – because more budgets will get defeated – plus, Murphy won’t go against them

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