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On election day, Newark will decide who should select school board members — voters or the mayor

A voting booth used in Newark's April school board election.
A voting booth used in Newark's April school board election.

Just nine months after the state ended its decades-long takeover of Newark’s schools, the district faces another potentially drastic change in how it’s managed.

On Tuesday, Newark voters will decide whether to keep the district’s elected school board or switch to one appointed by the mayor. Their choice will determine whether board members or the mayor are held accountable at the ballot box, and whether voters get to approve district spending — if they opt for a mayor-selected board, they’ll forfeit that power.

It is a weighty decision. Following the district’s return to local control in February after 22 years under state rule, the school board is once again responsible for selecting the superintendent of the 36,000-student system and overseeing its nearly $1 billion budget. As part of its release from state control, the district is required to ask voters whether its re-empowered board should be elected or appointed.

Along with that referendum, voters will also find a bond question on Tuesday’s ballot. It asks New Jersey voters to allow the state to take on $500 million in new debt to fund the expansion of career-training in schools, improvements to school security, and updates to drinking-water systems — an issue with particular relevance to Newark, which continues to grapple with lead and other contaminants in its water. In 2016, high levels of lead were found in the water at 30 schools, forcing the district to shut off their water fountains and conduct remediation.

Historical precedent, and present-day sentiment, suggest the odds of voters opting for a mayor-controlled school board are slim.

The last time such a referendum was held, in 1982, Newark voters overwhelmingly went for an elected board — ending the city’s long tradition of the mayor choosing board members. Today, observers say it is hard to imagine voters relinquishing their power to the mayor just as the board has regained authority over the schools. Even Mayor Ras Baraka has made clear that he thinks board selection should remain in voters’ hands, not his.

“The more democracy the better,” he told Chalkbeat on Friday, echoing other top Newark elected officials, including State Sen. Teresa Ruiz and North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, who are calling for an elected board.

Each of those politicians holds considerable sway over the schools even without appointing board members. Ruiz lent her weight to Roger León’s successful bid to become superintendent. And Baraka and Ramos teamed up with the charter-school sector to jointly endorse board candidates. Today, all nine board members were on slates backed by that coalition.

“We don’t have to be in charge of it literally,” Baraka said earlier this year, referring to the district, “in order to have influence over it.”

Tuesday’s school-board referendum, on the same day as the midterm elections, gives Newark voters a choice between two types of districts.

Under Type 1, the mayor appoints school board members and a so-called Board of School Estimate determines the district’s budget. If approved, current members would serve out their three-year terms before being replaced by mayoral appointees. The district would form a Board of School Estimate, made up of the mayor, two city council members, and two board members.

Under Type 2, like the system in place now, voters choose the board members and approve the budget.

Just 15 of 582 school districts in New Jersey have mayor-appointed boards, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association. Since 2003, voters in at least six municipalities, including Jersey City, have rejected proposals to change from elected to appointed boards. In 2009, Montclair voters went the other way, turning down a plan to convert from an appointed to an elected board.

Mayor-controlled school systems are also rare nationally. Over the past two decades, mayors have been granted substantial authority over urban school systems in fewer than 20 cities, according to a study by Kenneth K. Wong and Francis X. Shen. The researchers found that several of the districts — including New York City, Baltimore, and Chicago — saw improved student achievement on state tests. A different analysis that looked at federal test data found some gains as well, but concluded that it was impossible to link them directly to mayors’ involvement.

Proponents of mayor-led districts argue that they establish clearer accountability, allow for better coordination across city agencies that serve children and families, and insulate boards (and superintendents) from the competing demands of various constituencies. Yet it’s also possible for mayors to play a strong role in school systems — for instance, by lobbying for increased philanthropic and state funding or pouring extra resources into needy schools — without actually controlling them.

“Mayors can find alternative ways to create new ways of thinking and challenge the system of business as usual,” said Wong, an education policy professor at Brown University, “without spending all of his or her political capital and taking on a lot of risk.”

If Newark voters decide to retain an elected board, they will continue heading to the polls each April — a custom shared by only 14 New Jersey districts. Most of the state’s school systems time their board elections to coincide with other local elections in November, which increases turnout and eliminates the cost of an additional election.

In January, Newark’s board rejected a proposal to do the same, which would have saved the district $255,000 annually. As a result, as in other districts nationwide with off-cycle board elections, voter turnout was extremely low. This year, less than 5 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Members who voted against the move to November worried that it would entangle board elections in local politics, making it harder for independent candidates to run. But low turnout in board races, both in Newark and nationally, has created an opening for special-interest groups — such as teachers unions and charter-school organizations — to have an outsize impact if they can draw their members to the polls. In Newark’s 2017 board election, a pro-charter advocacy group spent $174,000 supporting its preferred candidates.

“Because there’s such low turnout” in board races generally, “they can be prey to special interests,” said Charity Anderson, senior research associate at Rutgers University-Newark’s Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies.

With get-out-the-vote efforts focused on the midterm elections, few have highlighted the referendum. The Newark Teachers Union urged its members in an email to vote for an elected board, and a new advocacy group called Newark for Educational Equity and Diversity, or NEED, went door to door in the West Ward encouraging voters to back an elected board.

At the suggestion of the Newark Students Union, the district held a mock referendum last week for students in grades eight to 12. And it also held voter registration sessions at schools for students who will be 18 years old on Tuesday.

At a public information session about the referendum last month, Superintendent León said that every voting-age citizen of Newark has an obligation to vote on Nov. 6.

“Your opinion matters nothing,” he said, “if you don’t actually cast that ballot.”

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