Second Questions, like This Year’s School Budgets, Post Strong Showing at Polls

John Mooney | May 2, 2011 | Education
Although only 11 districts asked voters to decide on second questions, over 70 percent of those posed were approved

The 80 percent passing rate for school budgets last week appeared to have some coattails: almost three quarters the “second questions” for extra programs or staffing passed as well.

Of course, the totals were far lower. Just 11 districts asked their voters to go beyond the new 2 percent cap to pay for services and offerings not otherwise required, such as extracurricular activities or sports programs.

Those approvals were hardly a given, not after the past few years. For example, not even a majority has passed in the previous five years, and none at all passed in both of the last two years.

“Over 70 percent of the second questions passed — quite a departure from the past two years and an unusually high percentage,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the state’s school boards association, in an email.

“Most of the proposals that were approved focused on full-day kindergarten, extracurricular activities and art and music programs,” he said, “all student-focused expenditures which, in a year of wide-scale base budget approvals, voters are likely to look upon favorably.”

Among those passing was $100,000 to extend half-day to full-day kindergarten in Springfield Township in Burlington, the equivalent of adding a teacher to the one-school district.

Also approved was $400,000 to restore middle school sports at Kingsway Regional, and an extra $760,000 in Franklin Township in Somerset to bring back certain athletic and arts programs.

Yet the biggest single ticket of the day was rejected: $777,000 in Monroe Township for its own full-time kindergarten.

And Sparta schools, for years winning consistent approval for their school budgets, saw both the overall budget and its second question rejected. Its budget was rejected last year as well.

This year, it was a second question to restore so-called courtesy busing in the Sussex County district, providing transportation for students who live inside the state-mandated distance for which districts must provide busing.

Sparta cut the busing last year, and instead made parents pay $437 per seat for the service. Approval of the second question would have restored the free busing at an average cost of about $31 per taxpayer.

“We have a long history of courtesy busing here,” said Jennifer Dericks, the board’s president. “The roads are just not suitable for walking and biking to school.”

“The $31 is certainly less than the $437 they otherwise pay,” she said.

But the voters didn’t agree in what was a contentious election dominated by the vote for three new school board members. It wasn’t a good day for Dericks, either. She lost her bid for reelection.