15 Sep 2014
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School Board Rep: Recalls About Intimidation

Two members of West Morris Regional board could have to fight for their seats.

School Board Rep: Recalls About Intimidation

Two members of the West Morris Regional Board of Education could be forced to ask voters to let them keep their seats in November, if committees seeking their recall get their way.  

The groups—The Chesters-based Committee to Recall James Johnston, and Mendham Borough-based Committee to Recall Jacke Schram—have filed letters of intent with West Morris Regional Business Administrator Doug Pechanec for the recalls. Johnston is the board vice president and Chester representative. Schram is and

The two groups are in no way connected, according to Joe Saburn, the chairperson for the Committee to Recall James Johnston.

The organizations are required by law to garner signatures from 25 percent of the represented town’s registered voters (as of the last general election) in order to file a petition for recall.

If a petition is filed and approved by school district Business Administrator and Recall Election Official Douglas Pechanec, the recall would be placed on the Nov. 2 general election ballot for voters to decide.

According to the New Jersey law, a petition does not need to cite a specific reason to recall a board member.

The date to file the petition for review is Sept. 2, according to Pechanec. General election ballots are sent out for print on Sept. 19.

Because Johnston represents both Chester Township and Borough, the organization moving to recall him will need to have 1,681 signatures from registered voters in the two towns. Saburn said the group has hundreds of signatures so far, but was unsure of the exact number.

For the petition to be filed against Schram, 957 Mendham Borough registered voters would need to sign.

Once a petition is filed, Pechanec has 10 days to approve it. If there is a challenge, the filing organization has the ability to take the process to state Superior Court, according to the County Board of Elections.

A Debate Going Back Months

In March, Mendham Township board representative James Button requested the board add a referendum to the April 27 election ballot that would ask voters to consider changing the funding formula for the school district from one that is based on property value to a per pupil cost. Button's request was backed by a group named Citizens for Better Schools, which is comprised of Mendham and Chester residents alike.

Both Johnston and Schram voted to table the referendum presented by Button in March. The vote to table the referendum went 7-2, with only Button and former Chester representative Sue Guilmette approving. Schram said she was worried putting the matter on the ballot could lead to discussions of de-regionalization, which might have a harsh impact on her borough's finances. She said she didn't want to make a vote before understanding the tax implications.

And it's that debate, the targeted board members said, that's really behind the recall.

"It’s an intimidation tactic from CBS [Citizens for Better Schools]; they’re behind it completely," said Johnston, who has served on the Chester School District Board of Education and the regional board for a combined 15 years. "This came up because . But from that came the [education] , which hopefully brings results.”

The education summit, held on June 14 at Mendham High School, was the first time the mayors, vice mayors, school board officials and district superintendents convened to have an open discussion about potential changes in the funding formula for the regional school district.

Chester resident Charlene Arrington of Citizens for Better Schools said CBS has nothing to do with either of the recall committees, but that members have signed their respective towns' petitions.

“I believe it stemmed from the [fair funding] referendum that was tabled,” Schram said, whose term, like Johnston’s, ends in 2013. “When the motion was filed to recall [Johnston], I suspected they would be trying to do the same to me.”

Schram said she hopes there will be no animosity on the school board regardless of the outcome.

“This isn’t what the school board should be about,” Schram said. 

'Reflect the Desires of His Or Her Community'

Johnston isn’t properly representing the constituents who elected him, according to Saburn, an attorney from Chester.

Along with Johnston-recall committee members Jo Anne Kruse and Bruce Sullivan, Saburn said it was Johnston’s vote to table the fair-funding referendum question that made him feel he wasn’t being spoken for on the district board.

“We found it very surprising the board rejected the referendum question,” Saburn said. “In my personal opinion, Johnston not voting for the referendum … I found it to be opposite of a representative democracy. I think each member should advocate for or at least reflect the desires of his or her community.”

Saburn and the committee decided at that point to research Johnston’s voting record during his time on the board, and said the majority of his decisions were in line with those of the Washington Township representatives.

“I think it’s a dereliction of duty not to represent your constituents,” Saburn said. “We don’t like the ways he’s handled our affairs while on the board, and he needs to be accountable for his actions.”

Saburn cited the decisions by the Chesters’ and Mendhams’ governing bodies to urge the school board to put the referendum on the April 27 ballot as a major example of misrepresentation.

“We just wanted the question to be put to a vote; to let the voters be heard,” Saburn said. “I’m not so sure it would have been passed, but at least Johnston would have been doing his job; it would have been appropriate for him to represent the Chester voters.”

Johnston said he does not vote along town lines on the board, but rather for what’s best for the district as a whole.

Saburn said his group has noone waiting in the wings to challenge Johnston for his seat if the recall is successful. Would-be candidates for the targeted board members' seats would have to petition to run under procedures similar to those used to get their names on a ballot in a typical election.

Long Valley Patch tried contacting members of the Committee to Recall Jacke Schram, as well as members of Citizens for Better Schools, but phone calls and e-mail messages were not returned. 

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