LINDEN, NJ – The local Board of Education is exploring other security options after its formal request to have June primary voting removed from its schools was turned down by the Union County Board of Elections.
Raymond Topoleski, the president of the board, said the members are concerned for the safety of the students on the day when people must be allowed to enter the schools to vote, and the schools are powerless to apply their own security measures, such as checking identification of anyone entering the doors.
Topoleski was authorized by the board at its Aug. 28 meeting to draft a letter requesting the removal and send it to the Union County Board of Elections and the county clerk’s office.
He said one alternative is apply an unused snow day to close the schools in June.
Topolesk said these “giveback days” are scheduled into the school calendar at the beginning of the year. There are four snow days allotted each year. If there’s an unused snow day, sometimes it is applied toward the Memorial Day weekend to give students an extra day off to prepare for prom. He said typically, many students will take the day off, anyway.
The problem facing Topoleski and the board with using an unused snow day to close school is that the ultimate decision will be made by Mother Nature.
“We’re held hostage right now to the weather,” he said. “We are going to make some plans, but when I say to the weather, what kind of winter it’s going to be.”
The board is also considering creating a list of possible alternate polling sites in each ward and presenting it to the board of elections. Topoleski, who lives in the fifth ward, votes at a firehouse. He’s hoping the three other firehouses in the city could become voting sites, too.
The issue of moving primary voting out of Linden’s schools can be traced back to June, when some board members said they heard from several parents who complained they had to adhere to stricter school security measures adopted by the board in April.
The parents were members of an ad-hoc committee called the Educational Support Team, which meets each month and informally presents feedback to board members.
When the parents showed up for the June meeting, they had to produce identification, but voters were allowed to enter the school without any vetting.
Nicole DiRado, an administrator for the Board of Elections that oversees polling in the county, said school boards are powerless to remove polling from their schools. And the ones that are concerned for their students’ safety during primary voting should close their doors for the day.
DiRado said requests to have polling removed from schools and into, say, libraries, churches and meeting halls are not uncommon across the state. Identifying suitable locations, however, is not an easy process. Among other things, voting sites must meet size standards, have adequate parking and must meet the regulations for accessibility established in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Board of Elections wants to be accommodating and sensitive to the safety of students, but schools typically make perfect polling hosts, DiRado said.
“We want to work with anybody, but at the end of the day we can’t move out of the schools,” she said in a phone interview Sept. 5. “We are respectfully requesting that the schools close on primary and general election days. They can work into their calendar professional development in-service days on primary and general election day. That’s what we’re asking. Well first of all, pursuant the state statute, they can’t bar us from using the school. They are public schools. They are most prevalent in the community. They are the most ADA-accessible buildings that we have.”
DiRado said that, under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, there are few instances when a voter can be asked for identification. In essence, voters are prequalified. The voter-registration form requests an applicant to submit the last four digits of their Social Security number or driver’s license number. Once that information is confirmed, they are approved to vote and don’t need to present identification at the poll.
“If a voter registers and does not provide either of those two items on the registration form, they will have to show a document to the poll worker when they go to vote before they can sign the poll book,” DiRado said. “If a challenger challenges a voter’s residency, then the poll worker can ask and should ask the voter for proof of residency. So, there are very, very limited circumstances in which a voter should be asked for ID. But not to enter the polling place.”
Powerless to check the identifications of hundreds of people filing in and out of their schools during June primary voting, members of the Linden Board of Education feared they will be opening their doors to danger.
Superintendent Danny Robertozzi in June wrote a letter he was planning to send to the UCBE and the county clerk. He said he shared a draft of the letter “internally,” that was somehow “leaked” to Mayor Derek Armstead before it could be sent.
Armstead called the board’s plan an attempt at “voter suppression” and scoffed at the idea that there is a safety issue at the schools. In a statement dated Aug. 7, he said there has never been an incident during a primary and characterized the school board’s call to remove voting out of concern for students a “smokescreen.”
“The superintendent and the majority on the school board aren’t really concerned about who comes to vote; they just don’t like who the residents are voting for,” Armstead said in the press release. “This is about creating chaos and suppressing the turnout in the June, 2019 primary, pure and simple. They were openly opposed to my re-election, are furious at the results and want to create confusion and chaos.”
Members of the board said at their Aug. 28 meeting that they had a responsibility to keep the students and staff safe. Vice President Theresa Villani conjured images of some of the mass shootings in schools around the country, saying, “For the mayor to also come out and say that this is not even a threat, that we’re just making up this threat that doesn’t even exist today, not to be melodramatic, but I guess you go ask parents of Columbine if that was foreseeable. Or Sandy Hook, if that was foreseeable.”
Topoleski said work on schools’ bathrooms was put on hold this summer so that an additional set of doors could be installed at each of the schools’ entrances.
School Nos. 1, 2, 5, 6, 9 and 10; Myles J. McManus Middle School and Linden High School are used for voting, according to the Linden City Clerk’s Office. The Ann Ferguson Towers, Firehouse No. 3, The John T. Gregorio Recreation Center, PAL Building, St. Theresa’s Church complex and the 7th Ward and 8th Ward recreation centers are also used for voting.
The November general elections are held during in-service days, when there are no students inside the school buildings.
Dana Sullivan, business administrator for the Westfield Public School system, said her district has been working with representatives from the UCBE to remove primary polling from local schools; only two of Westfield’s 10 schools are used as polling sites.
“With us, they were very, very accommodating,” Sullivan said of the UCBE. “I met with them several times to talk about this. We gave them a list of alternate locations and they went and investigated all of them. A lot of them didn’t work out, but they did investigate.
“They were very willing to work with us. I was kind of expecting them to be like, ‘Sorry, voting stays in school. You have no choice.’ But they were not like that at all. They totally get our concerns and in fact, at one of our schools, they supplied a police officer that they paid for.”
DiRado said the UCBE worked with Linden to have voters at School No. 8 enter into the gym rather than through the primary entrance.
“So, the voters go in and they go out,” she said. “They do not commingle with students in the hallways. With the exception of voters with special needs, who have to go in through the front door, everybody else is going to be directed to the back entrance at the gym. So, where we can make those accommodations so there is as little commingling with the students as possible, we do try to do that.”
Topoleski said even that plan was not ideal.
“In the gym, for example, you have phys ed classes outside,” he said. “And now you have people coming in to vote in that same building, walking through phys ed classes but they have to get into the building. That’s a safety issue, obviously.”
He said the issue of student safety will be discussed at the board’s Sept. 20 meeting.