NJ school board elections becoming as much about culture wars as they are about education

There are nearly 1,600 school board seats up for grabs around New Jersey this Election Day – with a surge of candidates vying for a spot.

News 12 Staff

Nov 8, 2022, 3:18 AM

Updated 612 days ago

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There are nearly 1,600 school board seats up for grabs around New Jersey this Election Day – with a surge of candidates vying for a spot.
While school board elections are nonpartisan races, for many the local board of education went from mundane meetings about budgets - to emotionally charged cultural clashes.
The COVID-19 pandemic and some of the nation’s toughest restrictions gave rise to a new crop of school board candidates in New Jersey. Candidates like Louan Austin say they are taking action following the frustration of the pandemic.
"I have been a voice for the parents in this community for years now, and I'm looking forward to being a voice for them on the other side,” Austin says.
Austin is running for the River Vale School Board.
School board elections are addressing such topics as what books should be featured in the classroom, how sex education should be taught and if Columbus Day should be celebrated.
Unpaid school board members are increasingly hit with personal attacks.
"I think any board member around the state who says they haven't second-guessed their decision to be a part of the board of education, I think is lying to you,” says Ira Thor, who is on the Howell Board of Education.
This year, the number of incumbents seeking re-election is down by 5%. It is not unheard of but is noticeable.
Thor is up for re-election next year. He says he will probably run again. But he says some moments have caused him to think twice – such as when parents complained that he was just a pawn for Gov. Phil Murphy and the COVID-19 restrictions.
Thor says he hopes this trend starts to fade.
"If it’s gotten to the point where the stress around certain topics is more overwhelming than the good that can be done by serving then I might decide it’s time to step away,” he says.
Republicans recently criticized the state's largest teacher's union for depicting parents as extremists in an ad.
The New Jersey Education Association shot back by saying it views parents as its partners.
But those running for the boards say politics should be far away from the classroom.
"This is about the children and their academic success, and it should be about nothing else. It's up to us to bring our children back to where they belong,” says Austin.
Most board members, candidates and parents told News 12 that their primary concern was making sure students were caught up following the learning loss caused by the pandemic.


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