Fine Print: New Law for November School Elections

John Mooney | January 18, 2012 | Education
While optional, calendar shift is significant change to the way NJ has voted on school taxes

What it is: Gov. Chris Christie yesterday signed into law a bill that would allow school districts to move their board and budget elections to November and eliminate budget votes entirely for spending that falls within the new 2 percent tax cap.

What it means: While the law makes such a move optional, it is arguably the most significant change to the way New Jersey residents have voted on school taxes since such a system was first enacted in 1903. The option is effective immediately, and a spokesman of the school boards association said it expects a “good number” of districts to take it.

Primary sponsors: State Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) and Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer); and state Assemblymen Louis Greenwald (D-Camden, Gloucester), Paul Moriarty (D-Camden), Wayne DeAngelo (D-Mercer), Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), Jerry Green (D-Union) and Jon Bramnick (R-Union).

The lure: The big attraction is that if a district moves to November, it would eliminate school votes entirely for those budgets within cap, taking away the uncertainty that grips most budgets each year when its fate -– no matter the increase or even sometimes decrease — rests on a few voters.

The exception: Even if moved to November, voters would still have a say on budgets when they exceeded the cap. Districts would have to propose that excess spending as a separate ballot question, with no ability to appeal in the case of rejection.

The trade-off: The reluctance comes in the politics of moving school board elections to the prime time of November. With state and even federal offices also on the ballot, that brings a lot more voters to the polls, addressing the notoriously low turnout of April elections. But it also could make them far more partisan, raising concern that the election would be even more political than they are. There has also been opposition from some quarters to eliminating the school budget vote for even those within cap, claiming the voters should still have a say on what is the largest piece of their tax bill.

A long-term commitment: Those school districts opting to move the election would have to commit to doing so for four years. The law also permits a municipal body to vote to move the election or to make the move by local referendum.

Christie’s take (last week): The governor proposed the measure as part of his property tax reforms two years ago, but making it mandatory for all districts. He hedged last week on whether he would sign the bill, saying he still wants it mandatory. “It would have been much better to force them to move the election,” he said. “I am certainly disappointed this was a permissive bill.”

Christie’s take (this week): In a press release announcing the signing, Christie said it was a signal of bipartisan cooperation. “After decades in Trenton of fruitlessly discussing the idea of moving school district elections to November, leaders in this state today have again demonstrated that we can get things done for the people of New Jersey when we work together.” He urged districts “to act as quickly as possible take hold of these benefits.”