Good morning, New Jersey.
It’s Election Day, again, with voters in 17 municipalities in 11 different school districts spread across 9 counties head to the polls today to vote in special school referendums that typically produce low voter turnout.
New Jersey allows school districts to hold referendums in January, March, September and December for the purpose of passing spending referendums that require voter approval.
But a decision by acting Commissioner of Education Angelica Allen-McMillan to shift the September date to October has put a strain on county election officials already working overtime to process vote-by-mail ballots and prepare for early voting in the upcoming general election.
Several election officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, expressed frustration with the timing of fall school elections. They suggested some voters could become confused by two election days in the same four-week period, especially with separate mail-in ballots arriving in similar looking envelopes.
“These two elections are too close together,” one election official said. “It has complicated the election and nobody at the Department of Education even bothered to ask how the change of date and the extra election might affect the process.”
The state attorney general’s office has not issued guidelines on how a county Board of Elections should handle general election ballots that arrive in special school board vote-by-mail envelopes.
The biggest gripe about special school elections is the traditionally low turnout – something that school districts appear to prefer.
“It’s stupid, but from their point of view, its smart,” another election official said.
Turnout for March successful special school referendums in Lincoln Park was at 12% and 9% in Essex Fells. But in Haworth, where voters rejected their bond issue by a 2-1 margin, turnout was at 27%.
In March, bond referendums in seven school districts were approved and two were rejected.
The largest bond proposal is in Cherry Hill, where the school board wants to spend $363.9 million on upgrades and additions to 19 public schools. If approved, the state would kick in $133,913.
So far, voter turnout for the Cherry Hill race is massive, with 8,220 vote-by-mail ballots already returned as of Wednesday – about 30% before the polls even open for in-person voting.
Democrats make up 69% of the total early votes cast in Cherry Hill, with Republicans accounting for 17% and unaffiliateds at 13%. The new Cherry Hill GOP municipal chair, Pnina Mintz, has opposed the referendum.
The state funds at least 40% of eligible school construction costs by offering annual debt service assistance under the Education Facilities and Construction and Financing Act of 2000. The funds are spent on school construction, capital improvements, repairs, renovations and upgrades.
The Sayreville Board of Education is trying to pass a $97.5 million bond issue that would renovations and air conditioning improvements in eight schools with nearly $40 million in state aid.
A bond referendum by the Little Silver Board of Education seeks voter approval of a $35.9 spending plan that would bring in $14 million from the state. The Shrewsbury Board of Education has proposed a $22.5 million capital improvement program that comes with a $4.8 million state subsidy.
The Watchung Hills Regional High School District, which includes Warren and Watchung in Somerset County and Long Hill in Morris County, wants to spend $7.9 million in upgrades. The state would pay $3.2 million of that. Green Brook, which is a sending district, does not vote on bond referendums.
Other votes today:
Atlantic: Greater Egg Harbor Regional High School District Board of Education, which includes Egg Harbor City, Galloway, Hamilton, Mullica and Port Republic, wants to issue $19.7 million in bonds using $8.9 million in state funds.
Bergen: The Northvale Board of Education is seeking approval of a $10.6 million bond issue with $3.4 million from the state. The Wallington Board of Education wants $7.2 million, with $2.9 million from the state.
Burlington: The Mansfield Board of Education needs voter approval to spend $2.23 million for capital improvements, with the state putting up $892,400.
Morris: The East Hanover Board of Education is seeking $12 million, with $1.2 million from the state.
Union: The Kenilworth Board of Education wants to issue $31.4 million in bonds, which would bring in $4.8 million from the state.
Allen-McMillan did not respond to a request for comment on why she scheduled special school elections in October.