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1-20-12 The Record article updates information on new School Elections Vote law
The Record - Changes in school board elections being sorted out An Education Department spokesman, Richard Vespucci, said members of four state agencies, including the Attorney General's Office, are scheduled to meet today to hammer out guidelines for implementing the law...

The Record - Changes in school board elections being sorted out An Education Department spokesman, Richard Vespucci, said members of four state agencies, including the Attorney General's Office, are scheduled to meet today to hammer out guidelines for implementing the law.

 

Thursday, January 19, 2012 Last Updated: Friday January 20, 2012, 9:41 Am  BY PATRICIA ALEX, STAFF WRITER

The ink was barely dry on a new law allowing trustees to move school elections from April to November and bypass a public vote on the budget when Teaneck jumped at the chance.

"The current process is not a good one," said board President Ardie Walzer, noting the disruption caused by defeated school budgets, which are sent to the local governing body for cuts. "Some of the concern [about the new law] is legitimate. But sometimes you have to change."

The Teaneck board voted unanimously Wednesday to make the change, even as state bureaucrats scrambled to draft guidelines for implementing the law.

The new law

A new law allows districts to move school elections from April to November, where they will be placed on the general ballot with other local, state or federal elections.

* The elections can be moved three ways: by the board of education, by the municipal council or by public referendum.

* School budgets won't need to be put up for public vote in November elections if they don't raise taxes more than 2 percent. April elections will still include a budget vote.

* In districts that change to November, trustee terms that were to expire in May will be extended until the first week of January, when school boards will reorganize.

* Voters in regional districts could wind up voting in April and November if, for instance, their elementary district stays with April and their high school changes to November. However, if all the elementary districts in a regional decide to change, then the high school district must as well.

In November elections, school trustees would be on the same ballot as local, state and federal candidates.

The move would save the cost of having a separate election and is also intended to increase voter participation, which hovers around 12 percent of eligible voters for most school elections.

The compromise measure was rushed through a lame-duck session of the Legislature and signed by Governor Christie this week; it included a host of provisions that are just now being sorted out.

Some critics say the measure was ill-conceived, allowing for a hodgepodge of options in a state already fragmented by the local prerogatives of nearly 600 school boards.

"I was not in favor of moving it to November, but if they were going to do it, they should just have done it," said Jeffrey Fischer, president of the Passaic County School Boards Association and a longtime trustee in Haledon. "The bill has so many options; it's going to be chaos."

Districts voting in November can skip the budget vote if any tax increase stays within a state-mandated 2 percent cap. Those that keep an April vote will still put their budgets on the ballot, whatever the total.

It is likely that neighboring districts would have different election dates, and voters in regional districts may vote in different months in elementary and high school elections. The law allows for no fewer than three methods for changing the date: by the initiative of the school board or the town council, and through public referendum.

"People aren't going to know when to go out and vote," said Fischer. "It's like a Chinese menu: one from Column A and one from Column B."

Awaiting answers

Robert Gilmartin, executive school superintendent for Bergen and Passaic counties, said districts are waiting for clarification from the state on some aspects of the bill. The timeline is tight, since filing deadlines are fast approaching at the end of February for April elections. Trustees in towns opting to move to November will see terms that are set to expire in May extended to January.

"Right now there are a lot of discussions and hypotheticals," Gilmartin said. "We're waiting to hear from the [state Education] Department."

An Education Department spokesman, Richard Vespucci, said members of four state agencies, including the Attorney General's Office, are scheduled to meet today to hammer out guidelines for implementing the law.

Gilmartin said an informal survey found that districts were about evenly split between those leaning toward a November election and those sticking with April.

Those in the November camp, like Walzer in Teaneck, say the option to drop the budget vote will save boards, towns and parents the frustrating exercise of school budget defeats.

But many of those who opposed the measure in the Legislature say voters should always have a say on school budgets, which account for the bulk of most local tax levies.

"Eliminating this vote will remove any motivation for school boards to reduce their budgets," Assemblyman Gary Chiusano, R-Sussex, said in a statement. "That kind of budgeting will not lead to property-tax relief."

And many trustees fear that their names and issues will get lost on a November ballot headed, say, by presidential candidates. They worry, too, that the move would politicize non-partisan school elections by lumping school candidates with partisan slates.

"A lot of board members, including myself, think November is a silly time to be on the ballot," said Fischer, from Haledon. "With so much going on at the top of the ticket, it's going to be harder to run for school board."

Email: alex@northjersey.com

 

 


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