By Carmel Loughman
The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization, encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy. In 2009, we studied the issue of an elected versus an appointed Board of Education.
Our position then was that an appointed BOE is best for Montclair for these reasons:
- There are only 10 petition signatures needed to run for the BOE. Thus, you may have a candidate with a gripe or a single issue like antivax, voucher programs, charter schools, prayer in schools or a return to neighborhood schools, rather than one with broad educational concerns. Or, a candidate may be on a crusade to slash the school budget, and thus deprive our children of a good education. Poor quality schools (caused by drastic cuts) would make our town less desirable and reduce property values. With typical voter turnout at less than 10%, such a single-issue candidate could win with very few votes.
- With an appointed BOE the mayor can appoint people with a variety of needed skills in such fields as education, finance, law, construction or management.
- Being on the BOE is an unpaid, volunteer position. Many potentially desirable candidates might be pleased to be appointed to the BOE but might not wish to campaign for the office. It is time-consuming raising money, meeting voters and cultivating a base of support. It is very costly to run for any municipal office. In the May 2020 municipal election, for example, the five at-large candidates spent from $8,000 to over $36,000 each to attempt to win a seat on the township council.
- There is a cost to the town to hold a yearly BOE election. That cost was estimated at $50,000 in 2009. Tax dollars are saved by having an appointed BOE.
- Every year the work of the elected BOE would be interrupted by the campaigning of its members running for another term or supporting new candidates. Raising money and attending election rallies takes times away from the important issues the BOE faces.
- Elected members often get locked into an issue during the campaign and may serve only their constituency. They may be less likely to believe that they have a responsibility to listen to, weigh and balance community concerns.
- Intuitively, it seems more democratic to vote for your policymakers but it is not necessarily the American way. Persons in many influential positions like Supreme Court justices, Cabinet members, the CIA director, the chair of the Federal Reserve, the director of National Intelligence, to name a few examples, are appointed, not elected. Our mayor hopefully will select the best people, with the best skills, to represent all parts of town based on recommendations, and in consultation with the other town councilors.
- A key difference between an elected and appointed BOE is that with an elected BOE, the public votes on the proposed budget. Voting on a budget does not guarantee that property taxes will be spent wisely to provide a quality education. Since between 80% to 85% of the budget consists of fixed costs (salaries, insurance, pensions) there is not a lot of room for cuts.
- Budgets are complex and hard to understand. The present appointed BOE spends weeks going through the budget line by line before submitting it to the public. How many voters will do that hard work before casting a vote for or against the budget? The school budget is the only budget subject to voter approval. It becomes a lightning rod for public anger. We do not vote on the municipal budget, library budget, county, state or national budgets.
- People may posit that an elected BOE is more responsive to the public. However, experience has demonstrated that throughout the years our appointed BOE has responded to many requests from parents, students and the community. Every request cannot be granted, but should always be heard. The BOE allows extensive public comment at its meetings.
- An elected BOE is not really more democratic when fewer people vote in the school elections than municipal ones. Turnout for both elections is dismal, but especially for school board elections. Voters have the option to vote out the mayor, if unhappy with his BOE appointments.
- There is no evidence that an elected school BOE leads to lower or wiser school spending.
For all the reasons cited herein, the League stands by its position in favor of an appointed Board of Education.
Editor’s note: The group “Vote Montclair” has announced it’s starting a new petition, seeking a referendum to establish an elected board of education in Montclair. Under Montclair’s form of government, the mayor appoints board members — an issue that had been raised in Mayor Sean Spiller’s campaign last year, because Spiller is also the vice president of the statewide New Jersey Education Association. Spiller will not take a seat on Montclair’s Board of School Estimate normally also reserved for the mayor, but has said he will continue to appoint school board members.
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