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N.J. school elections draw less cash

Big spending in the recent gubernatorial and legislative races had little spillover effect.

New Jersey's school elections - most now held in November instead of April - have not only become the quiet cousins in statewide elections, they continue to see less and less political cash as well.

According to data from the state's Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), only $550,000 was spent statewide on local school-board races in April and November, continuing a drop from previous years. More than $1 million was raised, but that, too, was a drop from the peak of more than $1.5 million in 2011.

The bulk of that spending this year was in Union County races, and a quarter overall was spent just in Elizabeth, where school board politics are epic. For the first time ever, a super PAC tied to State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D., Union) contributed to one school-board ticket in the November election.

The Elizabeth school-board candidates spent a combined $133,000, more than a dollar for every $4 spent statewide in school elections. Next highest was in Carteret, where four candidates spent a combined $50,000.

This is all pocket change compared to the $129 million spent on gubernatorial and legislative races in November, in what was the most expensive state election in history.

Spending on school-board races has been decreasing steadily, stemming from a number of specific factors and not necessarily the politics involved.

For one, having school elections in November is still a new phenomenon, observers and others say, the product of 2012 legislation that allowed districts to move the votes from April in a bid to increase interest and turnout.

More than 90 percent of school districts made the switch. One major trade-off is that their budgets no longer require voter approval as long as they stay within state caps.

But with a race for governor this year and the presidential election last year, the school elections were an afterthought in many communities, with fewer candidates running and voter turnouts not much improved.

"Definitely the spending is down, and you have to say to yourself, what has changed," said Jeff Brindle, executive director of ELEC. "With the change to November, it seems they have been overshadowed by other elections, especially in a year like this."

Brindle did a report of school election spending in 2001 that found that spending had grown considerably, and he raised questions about increased politicization of school elections. But he said Wednesday that without the budgets on the ballots any longer, the stakes have dropped.

"The votes were more important then," he said. "But now they are being overshadowed by other races on the ballot."

Without budget votes in most districts, a huge player - the New Jersey Education Association - was also taken out of the game. The teachers union's PAC set aside $400,000 for local school races, but ended up spending virtually none of it. The PAC in the past had spent as much $760,000 on school races in April, doing statewide television spots and other advertising to promote public education on the eve of the budget votes.

"With only a handful of budgets on the ballot, it doesn't make any sense to do statewide media anymore," said Steve Wollmer, the NJEA's communications director. "It's just not as much a contested environment anymore."

Nonetheless, others predicted that the elections will see more activity and interest in off-years and in the future.

"I got a number of calls this year on how to run a real campaign, how to raise money, what they can afford," said Tony Gallotto, a political consultant with Jaffe Communications in Newark who worked on a couple of school races this year. "We never got that in the past."