NEWARK, NJ — The three candidates running on the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate are the apparent winners in the city's Board of Education election Tuesday with preliminary results showing a wide lead over three challengers in the first election entirely conducted by mail in the school district’s history. 

The election, originally scheduled for April 21, was deferred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and rescheduled for May 12. In an effort to stave off the spread of the virus in the country’s second hardest-hit state, Gov. Phil Murphy mandated elections by mail only for municipalities with a spring school board election. 

Ballots were to be postmarked by May 12 at 8 p.m., and final unofficial results will not be available until those ballots are delivered to the county for tabulation, though it is unlikely the trailing candidates will garner enough votes to overcome their substantial deficit. The Essex County Clerk's Office anticipates final unofficial results on May 15. 

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On the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate, incumbents Josephine Garcia, the current board president, and Flohisha Hill-Johnson received 4,942 and 4,620 votes, respectively, while newcomer Hasani Council received 4,386, making them the likely winners of the three three-year terms on the Newark BOE.
 
Independents Sheila Montague, Ronnie Kellam and Phillip Wilson received 1,640, 799 and 978 votes, respectively. 

For the first time, all nine members of the board will have been elected by Newark voters. Until 2017, the school board only served in an advisory capacity. Local control was returned to the district in 2017 after 22 years of state control.

The Moving Forward Slate was supported by a powerful coalition consisting of Mayor Ras Baraka, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. and charter school supporters. It's the fifth straight year the group has come together to support a unity ticket and the fifth year its candidates have swept all three seats. The ticket also had the support of local elected officials, including legislators and every member of the Newark City Council.

With the chaos brought on by the pandemic, officials and local leaders were uncertain what would be the result of the change to vote-by-mail. Yet despite the pandemic, more voters cast ballots this year than last year in what has been a historically low turnout election.

The Essex County Clerk's Office said 7,343 registered voters cast ballots compared to 7,041 last year. Several community groups, such as Project Ready, made an effort to educate and remind the public about vote-by-mail.

“Despite the fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and with additional uncounted ballots still in the mail, we are encouraged that more voters participated in Newark’s school board election than in past years,” said Shennell McCloud, executive director of Project Ready. “This unplanned experiment in democracy shows that Voting by Mail is working, and I applaud the people of Newark for making their voices heard.”

Sammy Gonzalez, campaign manager for Moving Newark Schools Forward, said this year’s election was unlike any he has experienced. 

“We didn’t know what the outcome would be, to be honest,” he said as Newark BOE members celebrated the election results on Zoom in the background. “This wasn’t routine for an election, we used the phone, email, mail, social media.” 

Especially on election night, Gonzalez said, not being at the polls made it difficult to get a feel for the outcome. Ultimately, participation was better than he and others had expected. 

“We are thrilled with the outcome, but we would always like to see more participation,” Gonzalez said. “We made a big push to engage voters this year on the importance of electing members to a board that oversees a $1 billion budget and close to 50,000 students.”