TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey school board candidates, who typically spend just a few hundred dollars per election, are finding it's a different world this year.
Instead of being the top of the ballot in April's school-only election, most are now finding themselves in obscure corners of ballots that include Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, a couple guys who are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on their presidential campaigns.
One board candidate says the challenge is no longer getting people to the polls; it's getting those who do go to remember their local election.
And a political consultant says he's getting inquiries from board candidates who wonder if it's time to make their campaigns a bit more professional with real fundraising efforts and ad campaigns. "How many people will see it on the ballot?" asked JoAnn Young, a Pennsauken candidate.
The quick change came about because of a state law adopted last year that allowed districts to move their elections to November from April and gave two big incentives to do it.
Districts have to pay for poll workers and other election costs in April; those that shift to November could let their county election officials pick up the cost.
And by moving to November, districts would no longer be required to let voters decide whether to approve their budget plans so long as any property tax increase don't exceed 2 percent. The ballot questions, which were held only in New Jersey for most budgets, introduce unwelcome uncertainty into the lives of many school officials, though there are residents who appreciate the direct democracy.
Most districts made the change, and quickly. Four hundred sixty-eight are holding November elections, while just 73 stuck with April this year. Nearly 50 other districts don't hold school elections because they are under state control or have appointed rather than elected school boards.
School boards generally have three-year terms and elect about one-third of their members each year.
Critics of the moves feared that the elections, technically nonpartisan, could become typical Democrat-Republican matchups. And some lamented the loss of direct voter say on the budgets that make up the majority of the state's highest-in-the-nation property tax bills, which average more than $7,600.
Once the switches were made, the complaints moved from philosophical to practical.
Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said his group has fielded calls from would-be candidates who missed the deadline to run. For April elections, candidates must declare in February, just a few months before voting. For the general November ballot, they have to sign up by June.
Yaple suspects that might be one reason the number of candidates is down a bit — 1,813 running for 1,440 seats, or 1.25 candidates per spot. That's down from about 1.4 candidates per seat in recent years.
The community papers that usually cover school board elections most closely are having the same issues as the election officials designing the ballots: finding room for the candidates among those running for municipal and county government posts.
Monmouth University political scientist Patrick Murray said the uncontested nature of so many elections means that more intense campaigns are not likely to result from the move to November. "It doesn't really matter which day they have them on," he said. "Whoever's on the ballot gets elected."
But Tony Gallotto, a Newark-based political consultant, said school board members have begun calling to seek advice about holding serious fundraisers and printing campaign literature. While it's not exactly flooding the TV airwaves with attack ads, that would make for more costly and higher-profile campaigns than ones now that are based on word-of-mouth and sometimes yard signs.
"They've never run a real campaign," he said.
But, Gallotto said, that while board members are exploring their future options, they don't expect to make major changes to campaigns until after they assess the new environment this year.
Young, the Pennsauken school board challenger, is a Republican who says that party politics have been involved in the school board elections in her heavily Democratic town for a few years already.
But she is still running a low-tech race. The tools she's used so far: business cards, some yard signs and a website. She said her opponents, who did not return messages seeking interviews, do not seem to be doing any more than that, either.
But she said there's one advantage for candidates in the April to November switch: It made the timing perfect to head to fall back-to-school events and meet parents who will be voting next month.
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