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Column: Vote Tuesday, If You Still Can

Most in New Jersey lost that right, but 10 Morris County municipalities are still holding April school elections.

This is a column about how important it is for everyone to go out to the polls tomorrow to vote for candidates for school boards and to vote on local school budgets.

But it’s not very relevant for the vast majority of adults in New Jersey because most people will not get the chance to pick candidates or accept or reject the proposed tax bill for their local schools.

In Morris County, only 10 municipalities will hold school elections tomorrow, and because some of those towns are in regional districts, it means only eight budgets are up for a vote. (In Patch-covered towns, votes will be held in the School District of the Chathams, the Morris School District, and Mendham Township — that's it).

The bill that Gov. Chris Christie signed at the beginning of the year to end the practice of the April school election in many towns was wildly popular, with close to 9 of 10 districts eliminating tomorrow’s vote. This year, most school board seats will be filled in November as these positions appear on the same ballot with the president, U.S. senator and municipal council slots. In those cases, the ballot on school spending is gone for good, or at least for four years, when officials could choose to go back to an April ballot.

Most school superintendents and board members have never liked that budget vote. When voters say no, the municipal governing body (such as a town council) gets to do the cutting. It typically winds up shaving only a penny or two off any increase in the tax rate, but no one likes being told how to spend his, or the taxpayers, money.

So now, districts that don’t raise school tax levies by more than 2 percent (or thereabouts, as this is not an airtight cap) don’t have to go for a vote.

Sadly, almost universally, the people who have been disenfranchised don’t seem to care. Few have complained about the loss of the vote. That’s probably not surprising, given the annual voter turnout in April is usually only 10 percent or so.

Still, in 10 communities, voters can and, hopefully, will go to the polls and enjoy their right to vote.

Unfortunately, in all but two of those communities, there’s no contest for board of education seats unless there’s a write-in campaign. Hanover has four people seeking three three-year terms. Pequannock has the biggest race, with six vying for three seats.

But that still leaves the question of the budget. Voters don’t get the chance to have a direct say over municipal or county spending, so the school budget vote has often been a place for them to vent any frustrations they have—one reason school boards have always given for the unfairness of the school budget vote.

Yet last year, every budget in Morris County passed, at least in part because school boards were frugal during very tough times, and that trend is continuing.

In the School District of the Chathams, the proposed tax levy increase is 2.3 percent, estimated to cost the average borough home owner about $307, $122 in the township.

Under the Morris School District’s budget proposal, the average Morristown property owner would get a $71 tax break, while the typical bill in the township would rise $135. The district’s total budget proposal for next year is actually smaller than the current budget.

Hopefully, voters who do get the chance to vote tomorrow know that, have learned something about those candidates who are running and the budget plans and will use the opportunity they were given to pat their elected representative on the back for a job well done, or scold them.

As for those who lost the right to vote tomorrow, they will at least get a chance to vote for new school representatives in November. And that wouldn’t be too early to express their feelings, by voting for candidates who support – or oppose—the April elections. 

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.

This column appears on Patch sites serving communities in Morris and Sussex Counties. Comments below may be by readers of any of those sites.

Tracy Tobin April 16, 2012 at 01:02 PM
This is one of the more shameful political deals to come out of Trenton in recent years. In order to get School Board Elections moved to November, the Legislature "caved" under pressure from the School Boards Association and NJEA and eliminated the right to vote on school budgets that represent roughly 70% of the most property tax bills. The "justification" for the linkage was a 2% cap on school budget increases, otherwise the budget would have to be put to a public vote, the "savings" from eliminating the cost of separate School and General Elections, and the hoped for increase in voter participation in combined November elections. Why wasn't this split into two separate bills in the Legislature or put to Public referendum? Why was the School Board Association so ready to agree to the combining of the School and General elections after years of "hand wringing" over the danger of partisan election campaigns impacting school elections? Prediction: Sometime over the next ten years, "special exceptions or waivers" as to what falls under the 2% cap will start to creep through the Legislature.
g April 16, 2012 at 01:18 PM
Without a vote, will the taxpayers continue to give our schools enormous amounts of money to get the following results? Using data from the U.S. Department of Education we are able to estimate the percentage of students who graduate high school as well as the percentage that finish high school ready to attend a four-year college. Specifically, the study’s findings include the following: Only 70% of all students in public high schools graduate, and only 32% of all students leave high school qualified to attend four-year colleges.
Nancy Bangiola April 16, 2012 at 01:34 PM
I am writing as a Board of Ed rep for the Morris School District. I wanted to highlight the fact that even though the proposed tax levy for the MSD shows a 0% increase, the budget can only be approved with a majority vote. Therefore, it is critical that the public come out and vote for the budget in its present form. It is also important to note that the tax formula that assigns the proportionate share of the budget to the Township and the Town is calculated at the State level. The Town Government and the local school board do not control that formula, and it changes year to year based on the valuation of property on a date set by the State.
RGJ April 16, 2012 at 04:56 PM
Tracy, you make a great point forewarning the future carving of more exceptions into the two percent cap. The bottom line is, this was a very interesting piece of legislation that defined a compromise in that it left everyone unsatisfied. In a town like WT, the budget does not come under the scrutiny of the public despite us having to educate less and less kids every year for the last four and the next five years, according to BOE consultants. So, nice for the pro-spending types. However....if the Tea Party types start putting together slates in Morris County towns for November elections, many would win in a walk-over, take over BOEs in a few years, and that could have a dramatic effect on school spending, far more then voted down budgets have. Add to that there were three different ways to get this law passed -- BOE, municipal body, and referendum. Then the whole regional approval plate of spaghetti. I think if you are a fiscal conservative dropped anywhere in the the last two decades, a 2 percent cap and the ability to vote in BOE members with the usual Republican November hordes are a great deal. If you are a progressive spender type, the alleviation of the hassle of failed budgets is a huge benefit, especially when enrollments are dropping, but the fear of a November election has always been there. And, don't forget, it can all be reversed in four years.
Kevin M. Nedd May 06, 2012 at 07:39 PM
Tracy, Why stop at 70% of our property tax bill? Why are you not advocating to have municipal budgets put to a vote? Do you think 2005's 11.1% municipal tax increase would have passed had it been on a ballot? Your trip down a one way street seems a bit hypocritical don't you think?

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