Bill Would Shift School Elections to November

Legislation would also eliminate budget votes for towns below 2 percent cap

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.

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.