1-13-12 Legislature Votes for Changes to School Board Election Dates and Budget Vote

Alternative Press - Legislature Votes For Changes to School Board Election Dates and Budget Votes

By Sara Lazarus

Friday, January 13, 2012 • 6:17am

A measure to allow towns and school districts to move school board elections to November passed in both the State Assembly and Senate on the final day of the Lame Duck session, Monday, Jan.9.

School budget votes would be eliminated in any districts that approve the change to November, as long as the budget doesn’t exceed the state’s property tax cap, currently two percent. Any “second questions” for spending above the cap would still require taxpayer approval, and be presented to the voters in November.

Districts that opt to move their elections from the previous April dates to the general election must then keep them in November for at least four years.

The legislation has been sent to Governor Chris Christie for his signature.

These bills (A-4394 and S-3148) were sponsored by Senator Donald Norcross and Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, both Democrats who represent Camden. The bills passed handily, by a vote of 34-3 in the Senate, and 62-11 in the Assembly.

The legislation received the support of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA.)

Proponents say that holding the school board vote on the day of the general election in November will save money. By eliminating a spring election, there would be a savings of any costs required to open the polls for another day. It is also expected that moving school board elections to the fall will increase the number of voters. Turnout for April elections has traditionally been low—between 10 and 15 percent.

“Politicians and pundits have talked about doing this for years, but special interests and inertia have prevented progress on this important issue – until today,” said Greenwald on Monday.

Greenwald said he feels that other attempts to consolidate election dates in the past have failed in part because they mandated the switch. This legislation makes the change optional. Districts can choose to continue to hold April elections, or they can approve the move to November in one of the following ways:

1.    Adoption of a resolution by a town’s board of education

2.    Adoption of a resolution by a town’s governing body

3.    By a petition signed by 15 percent of the legally qualified voters who voted in the immediately preceding presidential election. That petition must be filed with the board of education

One of the factors prompting legislators to allow districts to submit budgets without voter approval is that an election held in November is out of sync with the budget year, and would force school boards to formulate budgets before they have the relevant facts and figures.

Allowing residents to vote on school budget votes has been a political tradition in New Jersey for more than a century.

Yet because school budgets are the only fiscal measures on which residents can vote, budget elections frequently become the sole way taxpayers can take out their anger about the difficult financial climate and high property taxes. Two years ago, New Jersey voters rejected 260 of 479 school budgets, even ones that included significant cuts and were within the state cap.

According to Lynne Strickland, Executive Director of the Garden State Coalition For Schools, which represents suburban schools, most of her districts support this bill. “School boards appreciate the fact that there’s an option,” she said.

Dr. James Crisfield, Superintendent of Millburn Township Schools, is one administrator who sees the value of eliminating budget votes. Crisfield says, “I do believe that a school board that works hard to provide a first-class education experience for the community, while at the same time capturing efficiencies such that they are able to keep the annual tax increase in line with the Governor’s cap, should not have to expend the time and energy and money to also have a vote. If we’re going to have a vote, why also have such a restrictive cap? Having one or the other makes sense to me, but not both.”

Strickland has concerns about the options to initiate a change to November as detailed in the legislation. The fact that a municipality can, on its own, make a resolution without support of the Board of Education, and vice versa, sets a precedent. Strickland said she believes this raises a “governance concern.”

She also mentioned that some people worry that school elections could turn partisan when held in November alongside major state and national contests. It might become more difficult and expensive for local school board candidates to have their messages heard, and they could find they need the financial assistance and promotional abilities of political parties.

Crisfield feels torn about November elections. “On the one hand, I fully endorse getting rid of the inefficiencies and added cost of having to gear up for another voting effort in April—it does cost time and money to get the polls up and running, and then when such a small percentage of the eligible voters participate, it really makes the whole operation seem wasteful. On the other hand, moving things to November will inject partisan politics into the education sphere, and I strongly object to that.”

The governor has not yet taken a position on the legislation.

After speaking with the Governor’s Counsel’s office last Friday, Strickland thinks that Christie will eventually sign this bill. A change to November school elections was part of the Governor’s “tool kit” of education reforms. However, he expected a law that would apply to all districts, not one that would leave some towns with elections in April and others in November.

Strickland has adopted a wait-and-see attitude, saying that "over time we'll have a better idea of how this all plays out."