Scarcity of “Second Questions” On this Year’s School Budget Ballots

John Mooney | March 31, 2011 | Education
School districts appear very reluctant to propose programs that would exceed new 2 percent tax cap

Still jittery after last year’s record rejections at the polls, just seven districts so far have announced plans to put forth “second questions” in the April 27 school budget votes.

Second questions are just that: separate ballots in which districts propose specific programs and spending that would exceed the new 2 percent tax cap.

The seven proposals so far, according to the list compiled by the state Department of Education this week:

  • Springfield (Burlington): $100,000 — Increase from half- to full-day kindergarten (one teacher)
  • Belleville (Essex): $302,000 — Fund vocational program (eight teachers)
  • Kingsway Regional (Gloucester): $405,275 — Reestablish middle school and freshman sports
  • South Hunterdon Regional (Hunterdon): $50,000 — Feasibility study of K-12 district
  • Franklin Township (Hunterdon): $40,000 — Restore extracurricular programs cut this year
  • Monroe (Middlesex): $777,272 — Create full-day kindergarten at three elementary schools
  • Kittatiny Regional (Sussex): $68,175 — Fund late bus for after-school programs.
  • That number of second questions could change — either up or down — before the April 8 deadline for ballot questions to be submitted to the state. But it appears in keeping with recent history, fewer and fewer districts are taking the risk of going to voters for extra programs and money, no matter how popular.

    The risk comes with the law that if the question is turned down, the specific program cannot be implemented at all for a year, unless another outside source of funding is found.

    Last year, just six second questions were proposed, all of them rejected in what was a record year for budget rejections in general. The year before, all 11 went down as well.

    “After what happened last year, when there was so few of them, this number isn’t surprising,” said Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. “Also the bump in state aid has helped.”

    Still, there are a few new rules this year that could make a difference.

    The main one, of course, is the new 2 percent cap on school tax levies, reduced from the previous 4 percent and putting in peril more programs. But easing the burden a little, second questions this year will only need a simple majority to pass, ending the requirement since 2008 for a supermajority of 60 percent.

    Since the second question mechanism was created in 1997, the separate ballots have seen a dwindling popularity. In 1997, there were more than 160, of which two-thirds passed. It held steady 100 for a decade, and took a steep drop when the supermajority was required. Just four out of 50 proposals between 2008 and 2010 passed.