Garden State Voters Approve 80 Percent of School Budgets

John Mooney | April 29, 2011 | Education
Light voter turnout revives various plans to move school elections to a more auspicious date

The 80 percent of school budgets approved by voters on Wednesday was notable. So was how few voters cast ballots, even by school election standards.

The state has not yet released statewide voter turnout figures, but county-by-county numbers showed that the annual budget votes were lightly attended in many places.

In Hudson, fewer than 10 percent of registered voters cast ballots. In Cumberland, it was below 6 percent, according to the county clerks’ preliminary results. In Union, it was just about 12 percent.

There were exceptions, of course, with Ocean topping 20 percent and Morris close at 18 percent. But it still looked to be a sharp drop statewide from the better than 26 percent who went to the polls last year, and maybe even below the paltry 14 percent to 15 percent that is the norm. (The low of 7 percent in 1985 still seems a safe record.)

The reasons for the light turnout were varied. The lack of budget rhetoric may have contributed, as well as the unusual Wednesday vote. The latter also renewed talk of moving the school elections to a more recognizable day.

“It‘s like having a party and nobody showing up,” said state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), the sponsor of a long-running bill to move the school elections to November. “Just think of the waste of money for the elections alone.”

Still, she and others conceded that the prospects for the bill appear no closer than ever, despite Gov. Chris Christie making a new election date part of his “toolkit” for reigning in municipal and school spending.

“It seems like it has stalled every since [former Assembly Speaker] Joe Roberts left,” Turner said, referring to the Assembly speaker who pressed the bill while in office. “It gets through a few committees but never gets posted for a final vote.”

The move to November has been raised every few years. The chief arguments against it are that it would devolve into a partisan election and also that it would disrupt a school budget calendar than now runs July to June.

Turner said many school elections are already partisan, but she conceded a springtime vote could be preferable for school budgeting. She also has a bill to move the vote to the June primary election date, while a bill from state Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union) would combine all nonpartisan local elections in May.

Turner blames her bill’s lack of progress on Trenton’s intractability when it comes to the status quo.

“I think some people are worried that sometimes when you increase turnout, you lose control,” Turner said. “But when it’s this kind of money, we should have more people weighing in.”

This year’s low turnout may in part have been a response to last year, when 59 percent of budgets were rejected – the highest rejection rate on record.

“After all the tempest last year and people up in arms for districts to tighten their belts, they felt this year that schools had gotten the message,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

“So much so, they didn’t even feel they needed to vote,” he said. “And those who did, it was the people who normally come out, the families and the parents.”

Murray said the new 2 percent tax cap also was a big factor, keeping the outraged away from the polls. A vast majority of districts came in well below the 2 percent cap.

“Districts worked extra hard to make sure nobody was upset,” Murray said. “The fact the turnout was low is one of the hallmarks of that.”

Still, it’s a perennial debate as to what can be done to engage more citizens in the school vote, the only one in which citizens vote directly on government spending — local, state or national.