NEWARK, NJ — Responding to questions from reporters at a press conference regarding Newark’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus, Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger Leon slipped in a wry plug for the upcoming Board of Education elections. 

“I do want to remind everyone that it is scheduled for the 21st of April, and I do need our citizens to vote ‘Yes’ on the budget,” he said.  

Minutes before, Mayor Ras Baraka, addressing how the global pandemic would impact elections this spring, said that they were “on schedule.”

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But as measures to keep citizens indoors become more stringent with each passing day in the city and across the state, such an optimistic outlook for democratic participation is increasingly questionable. 

An Essex County official told TAPinto Newark that vote-by-mail, online voting or postponements, as states like Ohio and New York have done for their Democratic primaries this week, are all likely possibilities. Contingency plans from the state are underway. 

If it were up to Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), however, postponements plans would already be in the works.

“We’re waiting to get some direction from the secretary of state, right now our focus is making sure we’re getting resources to our families who are in need, developing policy and making sure that people are staying as safe as possible,” she said. “All these other issues have to get addressed. In my opinion, anything that can be postponed, for the safety and well-being of residents, should be, if it’s not going to undermine any long-term operation.”

This year, the district says goodbye to its state monitor, Anzella King-Nelms, who was appointed when the board regained local control in February 2018, as it prepares to receive the Department of Education’s final approval for an equivalency waiver in the area of program and instruction. The approval will restore 100% local control to Newark Public Schools and usher the next locally elected board forward in a rapidly evolving district. 

April 21 or not, when the time does come for Newark to vote to fill the three seats on the board, voters will also be asked to approve a 2% increase in the tax levy on the district’s budget for the ensuing 2020-21 school year, or $138,314,942.

“We haven’t really been able to do much because everything has really stopped. It’s not because we want to,” said current board member Tave Padilla. “What do you do?” 

DON’T MEET THE CANDIDATES

Newark NAACP President Deborah Smith Gregory, taking precautions as the coronavirus began to cripple the nation’s infrastructure last week, made the call ahead of her organization’s annual Newark Board of Education Candidates Forum: The event, which provides an opportunity for candidates to convey their messages to the public, would be closed to the public. 

Instead, Smith Gregory and NAACP volunteers livestreamed the forum from Bethany Baptist Church as candidates gave their best answers to questions asked before rows of almost-empty seats. Questions came in sparingly online. 

On the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate, backed by the mayor, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. and the city's charter school sector, incumbents Flohisha Johnson, Board of Education President Josephine Garcia and newcomer Hasani Council are vying for the three seats as a team. 

Council was added to the Moving Newark Schools Forward ticket after board member Reginald Bledsoe opted not to seek reelection. Council is the son of South Ward Democratic Chairman Patrick Council and the legislative aide to South Ward Councilman John James.

The slate’s opposing school board candidates — Sheila Montague, Phil Wilson and Ronnie Kellam — are all running independently. Montague, a veteran educator, wants to refocus attention on teachers’ well-being, while Wilson brings a vocational background to the table. Kellam was not able to attend the forum. 

Aside from a desire to win, what unites the 2020 school board options is that none of them will be knocking on any doors or shaking anyone’s hand, at least for the foreseeable future.

Sammy Gonzalez, campaign manager for Moving Newark Schools Forward, said the team is not meeting and has suspended participation in public events in accordance with state and city mandates. On the whole, the campaign is suspended for at least the next two weeks. 

“They’re talking about two weeks, but it can go up to four weeks. We’re talking about hosting elections in schools, where they might not want us during these times,” he said. “Our focus right now is that young people are staying home, they’re getting their packets, they're going to their local schools to pick up their lunches. We probably won’t be gathering together until sometime in April.”

Montague, noting how an online election would be complicated by Newark’s high number of homes without Internet connection, said she’s hoping Gov. Phil Murphy announces a new date to give her time to get to know her constituents. 

“I definitely feel that postponing the election would be a great idea because of what’s going on with the coronavirus and the governor imposing the shutdowns," she said. "It’s going to have an impact."