Education is the hot topic in New Brunswick this election season.
City residents will face two ballot questions when they cast their votes today that would both have an impact on local education, if passed: whether the city's Board of Education should be elected, rather than appointed, and whether or not the state should give $750 million in funding to public and private colleges, which would include Rutgers University.
The municipal question regarding the city's Board of Education was raised by resident Yolonda Baker, whose son previously attended public school in New Brunswick and is now in private school.
Baker was previously a candidate for city council this election season along with city residents Charlie Kratovil and Jonathan Coloma. All three dropped out of the race in September.
Baker, the founder of the parent advocacy group Parents Leading Advocacy and Children's Education, or PLACE, said she heavily attended New Brunswick Board of Education meetings from 2008 through August 2011.
Baker said she believes district has "excellent policies" in place, but does not properly enforce them, and said that she was not happy with the answers she was receiving from the board when she asked why.
"(New Brunswick) has qualified school board members producing failing schools," she said.
Baker and a group of supporters collected 327 signatures to have the question put on the ballot of whether New Brunswick should switch from having an appointed school board member to a board that is elected by the voters.
Mayor James Cahill said that this is the fifth time the question of an elected board has come before the voters. It failed to pass the four previous times it appeared on the ballot.
Cahill said the movement by the group is purely political, and said the "sole ammunition" behind their motivation is the district's graduation rate, which the state reported earlier this year as being 58 percent.
Baker was quick to refute that her intentions have political leanings and said that she is passionate about education and not interested in politics.
"I like advocating," she said.
Baker said that she "never wanted to be on city council," but decided to run at the last minute at the urging of others in the city, and after learning of the education-related backgrounds of incumbent Glenn Fleming, a teacher in Hamilton and candidate John A. Anderson, a Catholic school principal.
Baker said that after her candidacy for council was declared, her attention became focused on gathering signatures for the petition, which took until September to accomplish, at which point she withdrew from the race.
She was not involved in any of the past appearances of the question on the ballot in previous years, she said.
If it passes, she does not plan to run for the school board.
In May, district Superintendent Richard Kaplan said the 58 percent rate was misrepresented, and that the district's graduation rate is actually closer to 70 percent.
Cahill also refuted the low graduation rate claim, and said that the state formula that determines graduation rate does not differentiate in the final number between dropouts and students who leave the district to attend school elsewhere.
It is heavily impacted by New Brunswick's high rate of transient students, those that leave the district for reasons such as their departure from the U.S. or a move to a different town, he said.
Cahill said that in a single year, from September to June, the transient rate in a single class in New Brunswick can be anywhere from 20 to 40 percent.
The more important statistics to look at involve the students who do stay in New Brunswick schools for all four years, he said.
90 percent of graduating seniors from New Brunswick went on to attend college last year, Cahill said.
"That's a tremendous number for an urban center, that's a tremendous number for any district," he said.
Cahill said that the sitting board members are all people he's come to know as his role as mayor, each of which have something to offer to the school district through their different walks of life.
"(They are all) people who bring something different to the table but have a common interest and goal in improving the quality of education in the city of New Brunswick," he said.
Baker said that she was not impressed with the explanation as to why the graduation rate is what it is, and said that the district needs more accountability with how it is run.
An elected school board has more eyes on it than appointed one, she said.
"When it's appointed, people are not paying attention," she said.
Baker said that if the question does not pass, she will not be disappointed, because more people will be paying attention to the city school system. She hopes to get the question onto the ballot during the next election if it fails to pass.
Higher Education Funding
During a visit to the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey on Oct. 24, State Senate President Steve Sweeney called the Building Our Future Bond Act the most important issue facing the state this election cycle, outside the presidential election.
The Building out Future Bond Act would allocate $750 million to the state’s public research universities as well as public, private and community colleges for the purpose of improving infrastructure. It is Public Question No. 1 on the ballot.
Institutions receiving funding would finance 25 percent of the project. The bond is repaid over 25 years.
According to votesmart.org, bond proceeds would be allocated in the following ways:
- $300 million for public research universities;
- $247.5 million for State colleges and other State universities;
- $150 million for county colleges; and
- $52.5 million for private institutions with an endowment of $1 billion or less.
Middlesex County College president Joanna LaPerla-Morales said the funding is the first in a long time to come from the state specifically for construction purposes.
"It is also important to understand that bond act funds will only be used for academic facilities,” LaPerla-Morales said, in a prepared statement. “The last time New Jersey invested in capital improvement at its colleges and universities was almost 25 years ago. Our students need and deserve a world-class education. The fate of New Jersey’s economic success depends on it.”
Rutgers University has also voiced support for the bond.
"Investing in new classrooms and state-of-the-art laboratories is about New Jersey meeting the global competition head-on," Rutgers University President Robert L. Barchi said in a prepared statement.
According to Sweeney, about 35,000 students leave the state to attend college upon graduating from high school, translating into about a $7 billion loss for New Jersey.
“Once they leave, they stay wherever they’re going.” Sweeney said. “They don’t come back. We’re exporting our future.”
Opponents of the bond argue Sweeney’s point that the bond is specifically for academic needs, saying it doesn’t address the non-academic concerns some institutions face. They also say the $750 million falls short of the $6 billion identified by college and university presidents identify as needs.
Some believe that during the current economic decline, the state shouldn’t be asked to take on more debt.
“Our last investment in higher education was in 1988,” Sweeney said. “Those who believe we can afford any more debt have to recognize our kids are not learning in the best facilities, and that we need to start making investments.”
The bond was passed in both houses of the legislature with just two total dissenting votes. A recent Stockton Polling Institute statewide poll showed 72 percent support for the bond, and nearly 200 businesses throughout the state support the bond act.