UNION, NJ — State records from late October show the faction that won two of three available seats on the Union Board of Education received $43,225 in campaign contributions, while its opponents seeking re-election received only $120.
Incumbents Ronnie McDowell, Nancy Zuena and Vito Nufrio ran a united campaign that was supported by the local advocacy group, Parents for Change. Nufrio was the only one of the three to be re-elected Nov. 7.
Linda Richardson, from the opposing Children First Coalition, led all candidates with 4,052, ahead of Nufrio with 3,473 and Sharon Sherry Higgins — another Children First member — with 3,398.
McDowell, the current board president, has called for a review of mail-in ballots after losing to Higgins by only 29 votes.
Paul Casey — a founder of Parents for Change and former BOE candidate — and McDowell have raised concerns about prominent local elected officials “influencing” their winning opponents with their monetary contributions and specifically mentioned Joseph Cryan, the Union County sheriff and a newly elected state senator.
“Vito, Nancy and I are all independent thinkers without any strings from outside interest attached,” McDowell said in a Nov. 13 email. “I believe that I cannot say the same for the two incoming board members. After all, they received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from people that are likely expecting something in return.”
October reports from the state Election Law Enforcement Commission show that Cryan donated $1,000 to the Children First Coalition and their candidates, Richardson, Higgins and Michelle Schulz. Schulz finished last of the six declared candidates with 2,836 votes.
ELEC filing records from Oct. 30 show that Cryan, who will serve as sheriff until January, contributed about $70,000 this year to many different local candidates. Cryan said he contributed to Higgins, Schulz and Richardson because he supports them on various issues.
“When the issues are as serious as this campaign was — millions of dollars spent in the high school … with complete carelessness of taxes and no accountability — I think it’s important for people to participate,” Cryan said in a Nov. 15 phone interview.
Higgins, Schulz and Richardson’s campaign committee also received several contributions from various business in Union and individuals who reside in other towns, records show.
There are no restrictions on elected officials making campaign contributions to nonpartisan school board candidates, ELEC Deputy Director Joseph Donohue told LocalSource in a Nov. 15 phone call.
“Just because they’re running in a nonpartisan election doesn’t mean they can’t take money from Republicans or Democrats,” Donohue said. “There’s no problem. It’s not in the law. There’s no restrictions.”
A local academic, however, noted that the situation can raise ethical questions, rather than legal issues, such as the appearance of elected officials contributing to school board campaigns that are ostensibly independent of party lines.
Daniel Bowen, chairman of The College of New Jersey’s political science department, said in a Nov. 16 phone interview that state law requires school board elections to be nonpartisan.
Nonpartisan school board elections are not held in every state, but they were created in the 19th century when there was a push to weaken the influence of “party machines.”
“That really doesn’t get out in practice and what you end up doing is, you just end up removing a really important way a voter uses to find out what a candidate stands for,” Bowen said.
Party lines are not needed to manage a school district, but Bowen said that perhaps partisanship in school board elections would increase voter turnout. It’s important to have a discussion about “high-profile” Democrats like Cryan supporting BOE candidates, Bowen said. However, he contended that an individual politician supporting nonpartisan candidates in their town “is not an ethical problem.”
“If I’m a Republican seat or a Democrat seat in the state legislature, I have the right to support candidates at the local level just like anyone does,” he said.
Steven Le is a former school board candidate who is the chairman and treasurer of the Children First Coalition. He said that, although his faction’s opponents have the right to ask for a recount, requesting one based on “unfounded claims is irresponsible.”
“Recounts don’t change election results,” Steven Le said in a Nov. 16 email. “If they proceed and find the results the same, we will expect an apology from their ticket.”
Le said his committee is fully compliant with all campaign contribution laws. He alleged that McDowell, Zuena and Nufrio only reported $120 in contributions on Oct. 27, yet they had lawn signs, glossy palm cards, a billboard, robocalls and a fundraiser at a local restaurant.
Brad Leak, who served as the treasurer for McDowell, Zuena and Nufrio’s campaign, said those expenditures will be reported in the 20-day post election ELEC reports. He noted that all contributions made to the campaign came from local residents, family and friends, none exceeding $250. Overall, he said the campaign received $2,200.
“But once you see expenses in line with donations, we will see the (Parents for Change) candidates had to use their personal cash to fund materials,” Leak said Nov. 18. “This is a grassroots campaign funded with love. Probably the reason we are losing so much lately, but PFC refuses to take the identity of a major political party with corporate style donations.”
Contributions of $300 or less from one source in an election, except for a currency contribution, do not require disclosure of the contributor’s name or address. However, such contributions must be reported as a lump sum amount in filings, according to an ELEC compliance manual.
Casey, who sent LocalSource the ELEC reports for the Children First Coalition, said focusing on the small donations for those whom he supports is a “distraction” from the “negative, divisive and partisan nature” of the recent school board election.
“Most of us are also Democrats, we just believe that politicians shouldn’t be influencing the school board in the way that Union (Democrats) did for 20 years at a time that the district was underperforming,” Casey said in an earlier Nov. 12 email. “Now when the district is doing more with less, they attack the improvements instead of finding ways to support and work with us to improve the district even more.”