I am a first-year member of the Plainfield Board of Education explaining my position on an important issue. This is no way reflects the sentiments of the entirety of the Board.
Last month, at our first occasion to do so, the Plainfield Board of Education voted to return its annual election to April. I am proud to have been part of moving these elections back to their appropriate season.
A year and a half before Plainfield View and nearly three years before I began service on the Board, I attended the February 2012 meeting where the Plainfield City Council voted unanimously to move the elections to November.
Then-new state guidelines permitted School Boards and municipalities’ governing bodies to have local BOE elections coincide with the general elections for four election cycles. The switch to November also stripped Plainfield residents of the right to vote for the school budget each year.
It was a race to action, as the City Council held a rushed special meeting on a rainy Monday night, only one day before the Board of Education was set to meet and vote on a resolution to keep its own elections in April.
At the time, Plainfield’s governing body was the only in the state to forcefully move BOE elections. Nevertheless, several City council members claimed that night that these elections would not be politicized. The vote was 7-0.
In the four elections since, Plainfield’s Democratic Party Chair, be it Green or Mapp, has openly run Board of Education candidates out of the Democratic headquarters.
Schools are the city’s largest employer, biggest budget, and most importantly, educators of our youth. The schools deserve a legitimate electoral contest.
Unfortunately, the most important local election has become a mere footnote at the bottom of the autumn ballot, in favor of highly politicized battles in our awfully undemocratic two-party system. “Vote Democratic Line B and also Emily Morgan for school Board” was the most recent iteration at the polls, and on campaign literature.
Opponents to the November elections make a short-sighted argument: greater voter participation in the elections.
It’s true, the American electorate – and Plainfield – faces a serious problem in low voter turnout. This was lower in April elections compared to November. But our electoral system has greater ills than lack of voters: namely the stranglehold of the Republican and Democratic political machines, and money in politics. Higher voter turnout, on its own, does nothing to alleviate these serious issues.
Moving the elections cured one problem and badly worsened two more. After all, what value does participation hold if voters are ill informed, or if they believe they are voting “down the line”? It’s a case of one step forward, and two steps back.
That’s not to say that local citizens don’t have the right to organize for change – which rarely happens without local, grass roots mobilization.
Since the April 2010 “Grand Slam” victory of Renata Hernandez, Wilma Campbell, Rasheed Abdul-Haqq, and Keisha Edwards, Plainfield High School has gained its first accreditation in over thirty years. The Board’s state governance rating went from 11% to 100%. The district’s graduation rate sits at 87%, far higher than five short years ago.
Politicians like Jerry Green and Adrian Mapp have the right to organize as well – but they shall not do so under the banner of the Democratic, or Republican parties. That is, after all, the whole point of non-partisan school board elections.
April elections give citizens a fighting chance against the Party Chairs, their vast resources, and their inherent proximity to candidates for state and national office.
There is a cost associated to empowerment. The yearly price of April elections was between $30,000 $35,000 in 2011. However, because Plainfield is the only district in Union County to have already moved its elections to April, the estimate now stands closer to six figures, as estimated by the City Clerk.
We can not control the actions of other districts, and Plainfield is merely the first to make such a change.
This potential cost does not deter this Board member from a position of principle, and of necessity in a city like ours – one of a handful of municipalities in the county with contested races, regularly fielding more candidates than Board openings. For comparison’s sake, the Plainfield BOE spends nearly $70,000 yearly on another integrity measure, the required fiscal audit.
The cost will be less should Elizabeth move its elections next week, against the wishes of Democratic kingpin and State Senator Ray Lesniak. There are few people in the state more political – or despised among progressives – than Elizabeth’s gubernatorial hopeful who, of course, gained influence on the city’s Board of Education through spending large sums of money on November contests.
After a big victory last fall, Lesniak has faced a key defection, making a move back to April a possibility in our county’s most populous city. Plainfield and Elizabeth, the two largest cities and school districts in Union County, have 32% of the county’s population and 36% of its public school students despite Plainfield’s 1,500 students in charter schools.
Unfortunately, some would like for the Plainfield’s School Board to be totally swallowed up into the partisan, donkey and elephant world.
At a recent Spotlight on Cities Conference with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp expressed his desire to appoint the School Superintendent. This is more interesting in light of Mayor Mapp’s city-sponsored robocall (listen below) attacking Superintendent Anna Belin-Pyles. She recently responded at a City Council meeting.
In this mayoral discussion, which you can watch here, Mapp proposed a hybrid system where he’d appoint Plainfield Superintendent of Schools and the Board would set policy. This would result in a weak, toothless elected Board of Education that has no power over the appointment, evaluation, and firing of the CEO who implements those very policies. It’s a recipe for disfunction.
Employment and evaluation of a Superintendent is considered the most important function of any School Board, and activists in Milwaukee recently waged a high profile battle against such a takeover.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka took a more progressive stance regarding community self-governance. Baraka, whose district is now state-run, called for “community control that outlives what [the mayor] wants to do.”
Community control, Baraka explained, does not preclude him from being involved in his school district. “Just because I’m involved in it doesn’t mean I have to be in charge of it,” said Newark’s Mayor. Indeed.
City mayors have enough to deal with – crime, job creation, pot hole repairs, economic development, and the like. We should not balance students’ needs with those of city services.
Most importantly, the Board of Education should operate independently from the highly partisan landscape of mayoral and city politics. November elections were a step towards that world; April elections are a step away.
Starting this April, those interested in joining the Board of Education will have to wage a School Board race – not a City Council contest, nor a presidential campaign. There will be no “Team Hillary” in November. No Board of Education candidates will be linked to lines A, B, C, D, or E. Plainfielders will again vote for the budget. School issues will dominate the discussion.
Power will be just a little bit closer to the people.