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12-9-11 Education November Election bill moves in Committee
Asbury Park Press - School elections face historic move

NJ Spotlight - Bill Would Shift School Elections to November…Legislation would also eliminate budget votes for towns below 2 percent cap

Asbury Park Press - School elections face historic move


NJ Spotlight - Bill Would Shift School Elections to November…Legislation would also eliminate budget votes for towns below 2 percent cap



Asbury Park Press - School elections face historic move

5:55 AM, Dec. 9, 2011 |

TRENTON — New Jersey voters have been casting ballots on school budgets since at least 1903, but that time-honored tradition may largely disappear under legislation that gathered political steam on Thursday.

The bill to move school elections to November and eliminate most school budget votes passed the Assembly Appropriations Committee, 11-1, with bipartisan support and backing of leading education groups.

Under the legislation, school board elections may be moved to the November general election if that switch is approved by a school board, municipal governing body or a petition by the voters.

Early school board elections are also a New Jersey tradition. School board elections have been held in February or April for more than a century.

Once moved to November, the school budget would only face voter approval if the fiscal plan exceeds the state’s property tax cap, which calls for a 2 percent increase in the tax levy, except for health insurance and pension costs.

Legislators and experts have long lamented the low voter turnout during the April school elections and charged that the teachers unions and educational interests are able to control most races.

Defenders of the status quo have warned that if school elections are moved to November, school boards will come under the heavy influence of political parties and face the same fundraising and patronage pressures.

Meanwhile, school officials have long complained that school budgets often bear the brunt of voter wrath over property taxes, even if large tax increases come from the municipal or county governments.

The bill would strike a compromise then, putting the elections on the date most voters will show up, but protecting budgets at or under the cap from residents looking to take out their tax frustrations in one place.

Although the bill does not force a move to a November vote, it offers ample pathways to do so. A decision by the school board or a municipal governing body or a petition of 15 percent of the registered voters can make the change.

Once the election is moved, it can be moved back to April, but only after four years have passed.

One sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald, D-Camden, said that politics are already involved in school elections.

“Whether it’s Democrat versus Republican, senior versus child, or pitting property taxpayer against property taxpayer, the reality is that there are interest groups that are impacted by these elections,” Greenwald said. “What you want is the greatest voter turnout possible.”

Greenwald also contended that eliminating school elections would save hundreds of thousands of dollars for governments. He said that Cherry Hill would save $175,000 by combining both elections, for example.

The state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, and the New Jersey School Boards Association, which represents school districts, both endorsed the bill.

The NJEA had resisted such a move in prior years, but the union backed the new bill because the switch is voluntary and can be reversed, an NJEA official said.

Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Chris Christie, noted that Christie made a similar suggestion in his proposed local government reforms. He said the administration supports the bill in concept but is studying the details.

Some smaller groups voiced concerns about how bill allows a municipal government to unilaterally decide to move the school elections.


NJ Spotlight - Bill Would Shift School Elections to November…Legislation would also eliminate budget votes for towns below 2 percent cap

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By John Mooney, December 9, 2011 in Education|4 Comments

New Jersey's April school elections and budget votes have long been ridiculed for the few who cast ballots and the little impact they have on what is the biggest piece of a home owner's property tax bill.

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But despite repeated proposals over decades and across administrations to change the process or move the elections to November, none yet have prevailed.

Now, breaking the stalemate, Democratic leaders yesterday moved quickly on a bill that would allow districts to shift the school vote to November, while also eliminating any budget vote at all if the budget is within the state's 2 percent tax cap. If above the cap, the excess spending would be put to a separate vote.

The bill, sponsored by state Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), the incoming Assembly majority leader, won bipartisan approval in the Assembly's Appropriations Committee and looks poised for passage before the end of the year.

"It will increase voter participation, save money, and go a long way toward getting people involved in the schools and the process," said state Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden), the Senate sponsor.

The key difference from past efforts is that the bill would allow districts to decide for themselves, with either the school board or the municipal council able to unilaterally make the shift. A third option would be through a voter referendum requested by 15 percent of the voters in the previous presidential election.

That flexibility was the keystroke in bringing along school groups like the New Jersey Education Association, which was once opposed to the shift. The teachers union joined a half-dozen groups testifying in favor of the measure yesterday.

"I think letting it be permissive is what allowed people to get their heads around it," Greenwald said.

But the flexibility could also significantly complicate the landscape and maybe confuse the public. Some districts would vote on budgets in April; others would cast their ballots in November; and still others would vote on excess spending -- also in November.

This flexibility is the central difference from a similar bill pushed by Gov. Chris Christie as part of his so-called toolkit for reducing school and municipal spending. In his proposal and most of the bills that have failed in the past, the November votes would be mandatory for all districts. Christie's proposal would also exempt from vote those budgets that fall within the 2 percent cap.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak yesterday would only say that the governor's office was reviewing the bill. "It is something we are looking at very closely; it's conceptually something that the governor favors," he said.

New Jersey is one of only eight states where schools' base budgets are placed on the ballot, according to the state school boards association. New York is another; Pennsylvania is not. Across the country, there is also little consistency as to when school board election are held, with some holding them in the spring, others in the fal,l and still others every other year.

In New Jersey's case, the votes have typically drawn few voters, with less than 15 percent of registered voters casting ballots last spring, about average for the annual votes. And when budgets are voted down, the task is left to the municipal council to cut the budget by any amount it chooses, often leaving some increase in the allocation.

Still, school advocates had been hesitant to move the votes to November for a number of reasons. A main one was the concern that it would further politicize the process, putting school board candidates and budgets on the same ballot as those running for president and governor.

That came up yesterday in testimony before the Assembly Appropriations Committee, but advocates said the opportunity for districts to make the decision for themselves helped assuage the worry. The lack of a vote on budgets within cap also was an important feature, they said, helping districts where below-cap budgets were being rejected by voters.

"Maybe it will decrease the politics, and let the boards do what is best for the children and not worry about what wrath they would incur from the public," said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, chief lobbyist for the NJEA.

In the end, it could leave few districts that see any votes at all. Only 12 districts last year went above the cap with so-called "second questions" on the ballot. Eight of those passed.

But how many would make the move is uncertain. John Donohue, director of the state's school business officials association, said only about a fifth of his members in a recent informal survey said their districts would opt for the November vote.

"There are a lot of political reasons why board members don't want to do it," he said afterward.

Some Republicans on the committee raised worries about a bill that would take away the vote on budgets at all. State Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon) has sponsored a bill that would move the elections to November but still require budget votes.

"I think we need to give them an opportunity to vote and at least voice their opinion about how their money is being spent," he said.


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