Both towns currently have school boards appointed by their mayors. Local activist groups first brought up the question in June of reverting back to an elected school board, which gives the people the right to elect the school board members. Petitions circulated to place a referendum on the November ballot.
Both referenda were placed on the November ballots, and parties on each side have been vigorously campaigning for their ticket.
In Union City, flyers, signs and volunteers have covered the town since September. Mayor Brian Stack has gathered support from groups of volunteers around the city to keep his appointed school board.
"We're out there every day campaigning, and it's been tremendous with all our volunteers," said Stack. "We have a little over 1,200 volunteers."
Flyers asking for residents to vote "no" on the elected school board are being displayed on storefronts and private residences. Volunteers have gone door to door speaking to the people, and some phone calls have been made as well.
"It's a grass roots movement, and it's parents who are doing it," said Mayor Stack.
Mayor Stack has stated that he believes having an elected school board would only introduce politics into the Board of Education, and that the groups bringing this about have their own political agenda and are not thinking about the children of Union City.
He also sent out a letter to the residents of the town asking for their support in which he stated, "When you voted for the Commissioners and I, you gave us your trust. I put it all on the line - if the test scores of our schools do poorly along with the quality of education, then go right to the top - vote me out of office, but let's not put politics in our schools again."
In the last few years, Union City, which had an elected board many years ago, has been ranked as one of the top Abbot "special needs" Districts in the state, with standardized test scores above the state average. Under Mayor Stack's administration, the Board of Education was also expanded from five to seven members.
"I'm willing to put it all out on the line, and asking people to judge me by my record," said Mayor Stack. However, other concerns with the construction of new schools and with the school budget have arisen over the last few months. Some residents may lose their homes and businesses due to decisions made on locations for new schools.
"Younity," which is the local activist group leading the elected school board campaign in Union City, has been actively bringing the message that residents should have the right to choose.
"Well, obviously we're going door to door and speaking to registered voters," said Jose Falto of Younity. "I'm very encouraged. I think people have received us well, and I think people are agreeing with us."
Some of the literature provided by the group gives their reasons for an elected board, including members having accountability to the people; residents having a say on issues such as budgets, school construction and quality of education; more local control; and academic freedom for all teachers.
However, they stress wanting to take politics out of the system, and that it is the residents' fundamental right to elect their representatives. They also believe that the current board has failed to include the public in decisions and education plans for the future.
"There are signs that say support the mayor and support an appointed school board," said Falto. "If there is no politics in the school board, why is he campaigning so vigorously? Why is he so afraid to allow the people to choose?"
In addition to their door-to-door campaign, Younity launched a broadcast campaign commercial on Oct. 19 supporting an elected board.
West New York
The campaigns in West New York for the school board referendum have been kept simpler. Representatives of Mayor Albio Sires have gone door to door, and made phone calls in both English and Spanish. Much like Mayor Stack, Mayor Sires believes that elected school boards introduce politics into the school system, and feels that the responsibility of education should fall upon the mayor as one of his duties.
"The mayor is responsible for the security of the town, for raised taxes, and responsible for the education of this town," said Mayor Sires. "If the people don't like what is being done, they should replace the mayor."
Mayor Sires firmly believes that an appointed school board is better than an elected school board because of the political corruption that can ensue between candidates and their supporters.
"At least with an appointed board, there is only one person held responsible," said Mayor Sires.
The mayor's organization also plans to send out a letter to the residents of West New York in support of the appointed school board, and nothing else seems to be in the works. About 50 volunteers and the mayor's political committee have been leading the campaign, and it was at the mayor's discretion that the referendum was even placed on the ballot.
The petition that had been originally presented contained discrepancies that disqualified approval. Mayor Sires also said that his office was being flooded with calls from residents that say they were misled into signing the petitions. However, Mayor Sires stated he believed that the issue was important enough to let the people decide. Especially since West New York has also been rated one of the top Abbot Districts in the state, and has made high academic achievements on state tests. Sires' main approach is to let the record speak for itself.
Leading the elected board campaign is a group of 20 volunteers called the West New York Democratic Reform Committee, who are also running their own grassroots movement. They have gone door to door with an outline of what they hope to achieve with an elected school board.
They are informing residents that they feel West New York residents have no say in a child's education, and that teachers "Must be part of the political machine to get ahead, or for that matter, to be left alone."
"We've just been going door to door," said Bill Parkinson. "We've been thrown out of a few buildings."
They are also running on some of the same principles as Union City, including that the residents' right to vote is the "right way of American life." They say that 97 percent of the districts in New Jersey have elected school boards, and that the appointed board is about control and power. They also state that despite high state test scores, the students of West New York score an average of only 820 on the SATs.
Come November residents will make their final decisions, and both Mayor Stack and Mayor Sires agree that with an appointed school board the responsibility on education solely falls on them, which leaves their fate in the hands of the people. If there job performance is unsatisfactory to the people of Union City or West New York, they can be voted out as mayors.
"I would just ask anyone to give us the opportunity to provide quality schools and excellent education," said Mayor Stack. "If it's not broke, don't fix it."