Not long ago, I was attending an NJSBA meeting, and a board member came up and asked a question that startled me: “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” I answered honestly that I am not affiliated with a political party.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at the question, though. I believe it reflects how Americans have increasingly begun to view all public policy matters — including education — through a political lens.
As board members know, while board of education elections are often hotly contested, in New Jersey they are deliberately nonpartisan. A candidate for a board of education may not be identified on a ballot as belonging to a political party.
This is not true in all states, and I think nonpartisanship is a contributing factor in New Jersey’s strong system of public education.
Board of education elections should always remain nonpartisan. Rather than being constantly reminded of political differences on a board, the fact that members don’t run with a political party designation allows them to place the focus where it should be when making decisions: on the community’s children.
Currently our school districts are facing the most challenging of circumstances. Inflationary conditions have increased costs for districts, at the same time districts are trying to contend with pandemic-related learning loss. The work of boards should be focused on supporting children and guiding our districts through these challenges, rather than engaging in partisan arguments.
Putting political parties front and center at the board table can lead to distraction and entrenched conflict.
That’s not to say that board members don’t have private political views. Board members have a variety of opinions and political leanings, and a diversity of experiences and opinions makes for debates that reflect different viewpoints. This diversity of opinion helps make an organization strong.
The New Jersey School Boards Association works hard to remain apolitical and support the work of all our boards of education. We are proud to provide a wide variety of services to our member boards — everything from mandated training courses and programs on a variety of boardsmanship topics to information and resources on school law, policy, labor relations, school finance and other topics of interest to individual districts.
I believe most boards in New Jersey do operate in a nonpartisan manner. In a time of national political polarization, we must all maintain that spirit of working together in the interest of our students. After all, what unites us — our shared interest in our children — is far greater than what divides us.
This year, I will be starting a monthly podcast series. I will be talking to education leaders, as well as leaders in other fields, to mine their expertise on a range of topics, and I believe their insights will help all of us become better leaders. In the coming weeks, I will share details on when you can listen to the first podcast.
These are my Perspectives. I look forward to hearing yours. Contact me via email.
Note: Dr. Timothy Purnell, executive director and CEO of the New Jersey School Boards Association, was quoted in an NJ Spotlight News article titled “Amid Culture Wars, School Board Elections Grow More Partisan” after this commentary was published. Read the article.