The final votes were being tallied Wednesday in the hotly contested race for the Camden school board to decide the winners for three seats in the first election since the state took control of the city’s failing public schools in 2013.
In unofficial results Wednesday afternoon with 100% of the precincts reporting, the leading five candidates from two slates were: Nyemah Gillespie with 2,070 votes; Falio Leyba-Martinez, 1,742; Elton Custis, 1,604; JeNell McRae, 1,546; and Tyann La’Shae Wall, 1,541.
Camden County election officials were tallying mail-in and provisional ballots Wednesday afternoon. A spokesperson said it could take two to three days to certify the results. There was speculation that a court order for a recount may be sought. Neither slate conceded.
Turnout for the election was among the heaviest for a Camden school election in recent years with 12,628 casting votes Tuesday. School board elections typically draw a low turnout.
Also on the ballot was Troy Still, an incumbent appointed board member, who had 1,533 votes, and three independent candidates: Theo Spencer with 1,124; Angel Cordero, 735 and Aaron Cooper, 693.
The nine candidates fought for three open seats on a nine-member board. The winners will advise Superintendent Katrina McCombs but will have no real authority over the state-run school district.
Activists won a major victory last year when a New Jersey appeals court said voters should decide how school board members are selected. Residents voted for an election. Previously, the mayor appointed board members to three-year terms.
Many viewed the election as an important step toward returning the district to local control, a process that could take several years. Former Gov. Chris Christie took over the struggling district in 2013 and sent a state-appointed superintendent to operate it.
Under the state takeover, board members serve in an advisory capacity. McCombs, the second state-appointed superintendent, makes decisions about the budget, personnel, contracts, curriculum, and instruction.
McCombs, a Camden native who was educated in the public schools, has said she would work closely with the new board members and seek their advice. Their terms begin in January.
Three candidates ran on the “Camden Votes” slate backed by the Camden Education Association, the local teachers’ union: Custis; McRae, a teacher at Camden County Technical Schools; and Wall, president of Cultivating Camden, a nonprofit that conducts college readiness and career seminars for high schoolers.
The entrenched Camden County Democratic Committee backed the “Education for Everyone” ticket of Still, an administrator at Mastery High, a Renaissance school in the city; Leyba-Martinez, a business owner; and Gillespie, a dance school owner.
Spencer, Cordero, and Cooper ran as independents.
For years, the district has been plagued by poor test scores, a low graduation rate, and a high dropout rate. The district has made modest gains under state supervision. Today, it has more students enrolled in Renaissance and charter schools than traditional public schools.
The big question for Camden now is when the state will relinquish control over the school system. Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City schools are moving toward a return to local control after achieving mixed success under state control.