In Oaklyn, trying to untie a tough election knot

Posted: January 29, 2014

In 1973, when Bill Stauts first sought to serve on the Oaklyn Board of Education, 10 candidates competed for three open seats.

"Those were the good old days," Stauts, 71, says of that era of civic engagement in the borough, where a single school serves about 400 students in prekindergarten through ninth grade.

On Nov. 5, Stauts, a retired insurance broker, was elected to his 14th board term. His was one of only three names on the ballot, where five seats - two made vacant by recent resignations - were available.

A number of candidates did run write-in campaigns, however, which is where things get interesting. Or, as Oaklyn School District business administrator Beth Ann Coleman puts it, "confusing . . . and unusual."

Consider: Stauts and Christine Reily were reelected to three-year terms. Colleen Faupel was on the ballot for a one-year unexpired term, and won.

So far, so good. Meanwhile, Todd Schaefer defeated all other write-in candidates for the third of the full-term seats. He opted to take it, although he also tied with Gina Wilson as a write-in candidate for one of the unexpired terms.

A columnist or other observer might reasonably conclude that the unexpired term would be Wilson's.

That's how Robert Venuti, longtime chairman of the Camden County Board of Elections, would like to see it. But the Camden County Clerk's Office takes a different view.

After the election, Venuti says, "I couldn't certify a winner, because there was a tie. . . . The county clerk didn't put a winner in the certification book I had to sign."

Venuti also says he can recall when a tie for a school board seat in one Camden County town ("I think it was Bellmawr") was settled by a coin toss. He adds: "I see this as a commonsense thing."

Says Camden County spokesman Dan Keashen, "The County Clerk's Office did their due diligence. But under statutory requirements [governing the clerk's office], any tie is a vacancy. That was communicated to the board in Oaklyn."

Because "the seat was deemed vacant," says Oaklyn Superintendent Scott Oswald, the board invited citizens to submit applications to be appointed to the empty post by Jan. 16. The board was to conduct interviews immediately before its regular monthly meeting last Tuesday.

But a blizzard forced postponement of the interviews and the meeting until this Tuesday, when Wilson and fellow write-in candidate Gene Ferguson are scheduled to be interviewed. The board likely would vote to fill the vacancy during the meeting.

I couldn't reach Wilson, but I did speak to Ferguson. He's 64, retired, and has made two previous tries for elective office in the borough.

"I have an 8-year-old son in the Oaklyn system, and I want to participate," he says. He adds that he preferred a write-in to a regular campaign because of what he characterized as the borough's "cliquish" politics.

To get on a local school board ballot in New Jersey, a candidate must circulate a nominating petition and collect 10 signatures of fellow registered voters in the community.

The petition submission deadline has been moved from June to July under a bill Gov. Christie signed in December.

Most school board elections in New Jersey have shifted from April to November, and the legislation "should encourage more citizens to seek school board candidacy," says Lawrence J. Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

The association also says the average number of candidates per seat in the state was 1.25 in 2013. Not exactly a stampede.

Perhaps word has gotten around that board service is short on excitement and long on hours. "It takes a certain amount of time," Stauts, who ought to know, says. "It also takes a desire. You have to want to do things the right way."

I agree. I'd also respectfully suggest that this sort of confusion can hardly encourage citizens to run for their local school boards.

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan

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