School Vote A Record-Breaker For Passing Budgets and Low Turnout

John Mooney | April 19, 2012 | Education
With most districts waiting till fall, voter indifference marks holdouts’ approval of spending plans

In the first break from New Jersey’s traditional spring school elections, just 70 districts went to the polls on Tuesdays, these holdouts from a switch to November hearing resounding approval for their budgets — at least from the tiny fraction that actually voted.

Voters in 63 of the 70 districts deciding on annual budgets gave approval, a 90 percent passing rate that was highest in recorded history for the state. Across New Jersey, close to 60 percent of all voters sided with their local budgets, according to preliminary figures.

But while statewide turnout numbers have yet to be compiled, those also looked close to a record — going the other way.

In Bergen County, where 20 districts’ budgets were up for vote and all passed, just 10.9 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. In Essex, with four budgets up for vote and all passing, turnout was just 7.9 percent in the districts voting, according to county statistics.

If it stays within that range, it would be the lowest turnout rate since just 10 percent voted in 1987. The average since then isn’t much better at about 15 percent. Only once did it top 20 percent, two years ago in what was a year of unprecedented budget defeats.

Of course, all the rules are different this year, following new state law that permitted districts to move their school board election to November with the general election and to exempt their budgets from a vote entirely if it stayed within the state’s 2 percent tax cap.

More than 460 districts took up the offer, and they did not have voting at all on Tuesday, the first time in more than a century that school votes weren’t held statewide.

Of those that stayed in April, seven took the risk and saw their budgets rejected, setting up the possibility of cuts by the municipal council.

The seven were Delsea Regional, Franklin and Monroe in Gloucester County; North Bergen in Hudson County; Readington in Hunterdon County; Lawrence in Mercer County; and Lakewood in Ocean County.

Two of three districts seeking separate ballot approvals of so-called “second questions” for specific spending over the cap also were rejected. They were Hawthorne in Passaic County and Greenwich in Warren County, both seeking funds to reinstate teachers.

The only second question to pass was Haddon Heights in Camden County, which won approval to spend an extra $207,000 for extracurricular activities, including cheerleading, band and choir.

Edison was one of four districts in Middlesex County going to the polls Tuesday, proposing a slight tax reduction to their voters. And even that saw only the slightest margin of victory, just 32 votes out of more than 4,000 cast.

The Edison board this winter chose to stay with the April vote for now and take some time to decide whether to switch to November, a move that can’t be revisited for at least four years under the law.

Gene Maeroff, the board’s president, said the narrow win on Tuesday on a budget that actually offered a tax cut certainly gave him pause. He said the board would likely take up the matter again this year, probably in the fall.

“You can see how tempting it is to go to November and not have to submit to a vote,” he said last night. “We cut the levy when we could have taken it up 2 percent, and we’re still only passing by the slimmest margin.”

One of just two districts voting in Monmouth County, Marlboro schools saw a little more cushion, seeing the budget pass by closer to a two to one margin. It, too, included a slight tax reduction.

But fewer than 2,000 people voted out of a registration roll exceeding 20,000, making some wondering if it worth the effort – not to mention the costs.

Marlboro Superintendent David Abbott said it will likely cost his district close to $50,000 to have held the election. And while it is entirely a board vote on whether to switch to November — and his board fell one vote short of whether to switch — Abbott didn’t hide his opinion.

“It is hard to rationalize staying in April when only drawing single digits to the polls,” he said. “It’s just hard to defend.”

Still, he doesn’t know what November would bring, either. He put the blame on voter apathy this spring, saying the districts certainly let people know that there was still an election. The general election would bring more people to the polls, but likely less inclined to be there for school issues.

“It will be interesting what happens in November,” Abbott said. “We don’t know that chapter yet.”