Spring’s No Break for Tuesday’s School Vote Holdouts

John Mooney | April 16, 2012 | Education
With most districts opting for move to November, a handful of voters head to polls

The sudden move this winter by a vast majority of New Jersey school districts to November elections has drawn much of the public’s attention, but don’t tell that to a handful of districts still heading to the polls this Tuesday.

More than 70 districts have opted to stay with April elections — at least for this year — putting their budgets and school board members up for vote tomorrow, just as they have for decades before.

They are the clear exception to the rule this year, with more than 460 districts taking advantage of a new law that allowed the switch to November school board votes and the exemption of a budget vote altogether if property tax increases stay within state caps.

That leaves no districts at all voting on Tuesday from Burlington, Cape May and Union counties. Another six counties will each only have a single district go to the polls. Bergen County is one outlier, with 20 districts — almost a third of the county — still voting Tuesday. No other has more than eight.

Under the new law, a district moving the election to November cannot move it back to April for four years.

In Bergen County, Ridgewood, among the districts voting tomorrow, is trying to sell a $86 million budget that is within the 2 percent property tax cap after the board decided to hold back a switch for now. To move this year, “the notification to voters would have been really late in the process, and the board decided that it would have been better to just revisit it after this election,” said Daniel Fishbein, the district’s superintendent.

The odds are still good for the Ridgewood budget, where voters have approved 14 of the past 15 spending plans. But while a majority of his peers will sit the election week out, Fishbein has had extra work — and uncertainty — on his hands to get the word out to voters through newsletters, phone calls and the like.

The superintendent said there was some confusion to overcome from those residents who had believed all districts went to November votes after the law permitting the change passed this winter. Gov. Chris Christie, who signed the law, had pressed for the changed to be required but settled on making it an option.

“What we heard a few times was people thinking it was a statewide decree that [there be] no more votes in April,” Fishbein said. “Even those who follow school issues thought it was over. So we have put out press releases, and will do a [town] all call to remind people.”

Harrington Park is another district staying with the April vote for now, and also worried that fewer and fewer people may know to vote as they see their neighbors moving to November.

The district stepped up its efforts to get out the vote through both traditional and more innovative means, including its Facebook page.

“We are really trying to tap into those things,” said Adam Fried, the Harrington Park superintendent. “It’s a way to reaching kids who may be in college, with now it being so easy to just download an absentee ballot. We’re hoping the online component will make a difference.”

Harrington Park’s proposed budget of nearly $11 million includes a tax increase of 1.8 percent, slightly below the cap. That seems to be the norm, with the state school boards association estimating that a majority of districts voting tomorrow are below cap. Of course, that also leaves them in a position where budgets may be leaner and still face further cuts if rejected.

“That has been a source of frustration in the past, and hasn’t gone away,” said Frank Belluscio, the school board association spokesman.

Three districts also will propose second questions for spending that is above the cap. They are Haddon Heights, the only district voting in Camden and asking for an additional $208,000 to restore sports and other extracurricular programs; Hawthorne in Passaic County, seeking $625,000 for eight new teachers; and Greenwich in Warren County, seeking $157,000 to reinstate two technology teachers.