BLOOMFIELD, NJ — The Bloomfield Board of Education voted during a special meeting on Friday, Aug. 9, to return its elections from November to April. The vote was 4-1 with Shane Berger, Ben Morse, Tom Heaney and Ralph Walker voting in favor of the move, Ellen Rogers dissenting and board President Jill Fischman abstaining. Board members Jessica Salinas, Lillian Mancheno and Michael Heller were absent from the meeting.
The scheduling change will require the school district, not the county, to pay for the elections, estimated by the district business administrator Vicky Guo to cost between $40,000 and $60,000. Public approval of the budget will also be required whereas districts holding November elections only need school board approval and budgets that cannot exceed a 2-percent cap. With April elections, there is no cap.
For an issue of such significance, the meeting was sparsely attended, with about a dozen people in the audience. When the microphone was opened to the public comment, someone asked why the meeting was called for a Friday evening in August.
School board attorney Nicholas Dotoli said that if the change were made that the deadline for notifying the Essex County Clerk’s Office was Monday, Aug. 12. He also said that if the election were rescheduled, the incumbents up for re-election this year — Fischman, Morse and Mancheno — would have their terms extended until April 2020. Board members Heaney, Rogers and Salinas, who would be up for re-election in November 2020, would have their terms extended to April 2021.
When Fischman opened the floor to the board, Berger said at-risk students would benefit from April elections. Calling the general elections in November “a slurry,” he said April elections would hold board members accountable.
Walker said he did not like the last-minute situation into which the board had placed itself, and that escaping the politics of November elections could not be ignored.
“As a membership, we owe the public an explanation,” he said. “We have to do a better job.”
Heaney said the issue was a double-edged sword and one of the most difficult decisions in his life.
Rogers said that, regardless of which month the elections are held, candidates remain at the mercy of their ballot positions. But her biggest concern was if the budget were to be voted down, it would go to the Township Council for cuts and approval. She wondered if that would ultimately affect the education of Bloomfield children more than November elections. Rogers unsuccessfully attempted to table the vote.
In an email to The Independent Press, Matt Giordano, president of the Bloomfield Education Association — union representing the teachers — said the timing of the special meeting was unacceptable.
“If this was an important topic,” he said, “why not do it at a normally scheduled board meeting?”
He objected to paying for an election whose actual cost is unknown, and what he called “voter suppression,” the historically low turnout for April school board elections. Giordano, like Rogers, was concerned with spending cuts if the budget was voted down.
“The state has checks and balances in place regarding tax increases,” he said. “This district has not budgeted to the cap, the maximum increase allowed by law. If they continue to budget below cap, and then if the taxpayers vote against the proposed budget, there will be additional funding cuts resulting in loss of programs and staffing.”
Regarding Fischman’s abstention, Giordano said how the board president chooses to vote is “on her.”
“But we would hope that the board president, as an elected representative, would have the students in this district, as well as the constituents of the town, in her best interest,” he said.
In a telephone interview earlier this week, Fischman said there are two sides to every story.
“We continue to strive for what goes out to the public is correct information,” she said. “What we did was not an illegal matter. It was done in accordance to the law.”
She acknowledged that people were upset about when the meeting was scheduled, saying, “We could have done it prior to this, but we wanted everyone informed.”
Regarding her abstention, Fischman said that when it was her turn to vote, the matter had already been decided.
“It was a difficult position for me,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be self-serving to extend my term.”
In a telephone interview, Berger said the vote for April elections had righted a wrong.
“The road to expedited student achievement goes through April elections,” he said, while predicting all school districts will move back to April elections.
“We can move above the cap and the public will vote on it,” he said.
Morse said in a telephone interview that he was happy to see the change.
“Hopefully, it will bring more integrity to the election process,” he said.
But Giordano saw no benefit in making the move from November to April, saying this was evident in the fact that only a fraction of school districts in the state hold elections in April.