The energized school board races that marked the state’s gubernatorial election two years ago and again last year appear poised to return this November as parents and school communities are fired up by new controversies, not life-threatening as COVID-19 was, but equally polarizing.
The numbers say it all – in Bergen County, 236 candidates are running for 61 seats in 61 school districts, according to unofficial lists released by county officials following Monday’s filing deadline.
Fourteen candidates are running for five seats in Teaneck where only one incumbent is seeking reelection. In neighboring Sussex County, 17 candidates are running for six open seats in Sparta, where the school board is often divided over issues and differing political ideologies.
There are 85 candidates who will compete this year for 79 seats on Sussex County school boards. There were 64 candidates listed on last November’s ballot, compared to 74 in 2020 and 70 in 2019. Morris County has 173 candidates running for 108 seats. Passaic County, with only 16 municipalities, has 86 candidates. There are very few races where there are more open seats than candidates, typical in past races.
Some of the reasons that drive people to run for the non-partisan school boards include traditional issues such as fiscal responsibility, spending, transportation and critical staffing shortages. But the overarching issue that has dominated discussions at boards of education, despite schools battling teacher shortages, national mass shootings and the after-effects of COVID on learning and social development is sex education.
In 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration and the state Department of Education revised the Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education that includes sex education. The state is mandating districts to implement the new sex education standards beginning in September.
Running to reverse what they say is the Murphy administration’s “overstepping” and even “indoctrination” of children with liberal value systems are scores of “parental-rights” candidates.
Their opponents say the schools are only being required to step in and prepare children for today’s cultural realities where advanced sex education and gender discussions play an important role.
Slogans like “Putting Children First”, “Our Kids First”, and “Students First” show up across counties and candidates. It is unclear if these slogans are an echo of the 2021 election, when similar slogans were chosen by candidates with “anti-woke” and parental rights platforms. Three candidates ran as a group and won on a “parental rights” platform in Wayne using the slogan “Education First”. Members of that group also made a false, but widely circulated claim that the state was pushing Critical Race Theory into its curriculum.
This year, a similar slogan, “Students First”, has newcomer Kim Ansh running on a parental rights platform at Ramapo Hills Regional High school.
And supporting the hundreds of candidates are local, volunteer groups organizing to help them win. The groups educate and inform candidates on how to file to run for office, campaign and prepare for pitted battles in the coming months.
The New Jersey Coalition for the Protection of Public Education, a Wayne-based grassroots group run by retired attorney Mike Gottesman, educates candidates and informs parents on “how to tear apart and discredit” misinformation around public education.
“To eliminate or reject an entire portion of the curriculum because you’re afraid of it, or because some groups have caused hysteria about it, is not in the best interests of our children,” said Gottesman, who formed the group in April to counter what he calls a right-wing movement to sow seeds of mistrust in K-12 schools.
Gottesman said his organization has conducted roadshows and private sessions with parents and candidates in 100 municipalities in 19 counties around fighting conspiracy theories about “grooming” kids for sex and woke values, in addition to other issues.
Supporting candidates on the other side is a group called Arise NJ, run by Josh Aikens, who is also president of the Lafayette Board of Education in Sussex County. A June press release features a testimonial by Ari Donio, who ran and won a seat on the Franklin Lakes Board of Education on a “Take Back Our Schools” platform in 2021. Donio’s candidacy was promoted by groups like Flow PDE (Parents Defending Education), whose Facebook page says it is “fighting indoctrination in the classroom” to restore “healthy education.” Aikens said he does not necessarily believe there is a conspiracy out there to indoctrinate children, but also noted he is not responsible for how others represent his platform.
In a June statement from Arise NJ titled, “Arise NJ Helps School Boards Candidates Win,” the sex education standards are described as a rallying point for the 2022 school board elections because they “introduce gender and sexual education as early as kindergarten.”
That is a false claim.
Nowhere in the new standards does the state require sexual education in kindergarten, though broad discussions about debunking gender stereotypes are expected by second grade.
Arise NJ was active during the 2021 elections when the group organized to support parents concerned about mask mandates and vaccines and looking to voice their frustrations with schools operating remotely. But this year the people reaching out were more serious and looking to run for election, said Aikens.
“My phone was going off the hook last week,” he said as people called to ask how to file before the deadline. Most of them filed for candidacy, he said. He said his organization is working with around 100 candidates across Monmouth, Sussex and Morris counties. That number, he expects, will go up to 300 at least by November.
Aikens said he asks candidates to focus on academics and school issues, instead of getting sidelined by controversies that drove them to run in the first place.
Still, two years of fractious, overly politicized boards have resulted in some incumbents deciding not to seek re-election. After 10 years on the Wayne Board of Education, Trustee Micheal Bubba won’t seek reelection. A promotion requiring travel and offering less time to be a dedicated board trustee is not the only reason Bubba is ending his stint, he said. “We are on a board where nobody wants to compromise. We are not looking five years ahead as a board [of education] should be. We are looking at the controversy of the week,” he said.
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Since the pandemic, Wayne’s school board meetings have been tense and loud on many occasions – a student was reduced to tears at a public meeting, and parents flung accusations against other community members.
“The board has changed in the same way that the world has. There is no compromise anymore, everyone wants to win. They don’t care how it affects everyone else,” said Bubba.
There are two groups in Wayne on the board of education, said Bubba, and one of them does not want to implement the new sex-ed standards, which state law requires. In the case of sex-ed, state law also allowed families to opt their children out of learning the standards, he said, but members of one group in Wayne do not want to take that option. It would go against his oath and his ethics, said Bubba, as a sitting board member, to refuse to implement the standards.
Not every board race is spun around sex-ed or left and right-wing politics in New Jersey. Teaneck candidate Darryl Greene is one of 14 running for five seats, because of concerns that the current board wants to promote like-minded candidates.
“This board needs to change,” said Greene. Fellow candidate Michael Reich said he agreed with Greene on most of the issues facing the schools even though both have very different political views.
“I’m a Republican and he’s a Democrat,” said Reich. “This isn’t about party, the fact that people with such different political views see so much similarity on these issues should be a huge wake-up to everyone watching, that we are right.”
But it is about parties for groups like Arise NJ and the Coalition and hundreds of school board candidates running in New Jersey in November. Aikens and Gottesman said they wanted to remove politics from school boards, which are supposed to be non-partisan and non-political. But those deep differences drive the very divisions the two men say they want to see gone.
“In my view, the Republican party in New Jersey has a much better handle on the fact that local races are important and acknowledging that they can push the ballot upward,” said Gottesman. He was referring to how the ballot is structured. School board candidates are not listed vertically in “line” with other candidates from the same party. Even though school board candidate names are separated from party-line listings on the ballot to remain non-partisan, the divisions driving voters to flock to the polls are proof that local campaigns matter and that parties can impact results by working up from the bottom of the ballot.