Campaigns kick into overdrive for ballot question
Community divided over referendum concerning elected public school board
Signs instructing New Brunswick residents to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on a ballot question concerning New Brunswick public schools are the latest strategy local campaigns have employed around the city.
The city of New Brunswick public question gives residents the option to choose between the current Type I school district system, in which Mayor James Cahill appoints Board of Education members, and a Type II school district system, which would allow voters to select the board members, said Charlie Kratovil, a member of the New Brunswick for Elected School Board Committee.
“If you look at Middlesex County, New Brunswick schools stand out in two ways. First of all, they are the only [town] where there are no elections for the school board. Second of all, they are by far the worst district. This is not a coincidence,” Kratovil said.
The “Vote Yes” campaign has found an ally in the Rutgers University Student Assembly, which has partnered with the committee in an effort to inform students about the issue, said John Connelly, RUSA president.
“I had seen all of these ‘vote no’ signs distributed ... but none of the information on those signs seemed to reflect reality,” said Connelly, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. “As we became more informed ... we decided that ‘Vote Yes’ would be something that we wanted to pursue.”
Members of the campaign hope to remedy what they believe is a factor that leads to poor education in New Brunswick, which has a 58 percent graduation rate, according to the state.
“I think at least part of [the problem] is that the average parent in New Brunswick does not have any real direct accountability over the policies they make [in New Brunswick],” he said.
Russell Marchetta, city spokesman, said the graduation statistic comes as a result of a faulty formula. It takes the number of an incoming freshman class and compares it with the number of a graduating senior class four years later.
“They forget that, in New Brunswick, we have many students that move out of town and go to different schools for whatever reason,” he said. “We have a very transient population in New Brunswick, so this type of formula does not work.”
This year’s ballot marks the fifth time residents will vote on the question, Marchetta said. The option to change the current system was voted down in 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2000.
“It’s been voted down four times in the last 20 years, each time by a bigger plurality than the time before,” Marchetta said. “It just goes to show that the residents in New Brunswick, the taxpayers, are happy with the way the board works now.”
Yet Kratovil said the reason the question has traditionally been voted down is because of the substantial campaigning the city commits against the change.
“This question has been put to voters before, and every time [Cahill] funds a campaign to basically prevent the community from taking control of the school system and taking that control away from him,” Kratovil said.
The Committee to Keep Politics Out Of Our Schools, which is behind the opposition campaign, received a donation from Cahill for $11,772 and a donation from a group called “Friends of Mayor James Cahill” for $6,000, according to a report released by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
The report, which was published on Oct. 26, shows the two donations amount for more than 85 percent of the campaign’s funding, a fact Kratovil said proves the main supporter of the campaign is the mayor himself.
“It’s just a naked attempt for [Cahill] to keep power and the status quo, and the community is saying the status quo is not working and we need change,” he said.
Cahill’s office declined to comment.
The “Vote Yes” campaign only has a donation balance of $150, said Marge Kerber, treasurer for the New Brunswick for Elected School Board Committee.
“The opposition claims that we want power, but I don’t think $150 gets us far,” Kerber said. “This campaign is not about spending money, it’s about talking to the people of New Brunswick and making sure they understand exactly what is going on.”
Connelly said he hopes students become informed on the issue and will realize they are a part of the New Brunswick community.
“What happens in this city obviously affects us because a lot of us rent in the city or shop at established markets in New Brunswick,” Connelly said.
Connelly said he expects young people to come out and vote in historical numbers, and finds it strange to hear people argue that students are only a transient population that are not truly committed to the city they temporarily live in.
“For no other population will anyone make that argument,” Connelly said. “We live in a global economy, we are all transient voters now.”