Most School Budgets Win Voter Approval

In districts still holding traditional April elections, 36 of 39 spending plans get go-ahead

School districts still holding elections in April continued to be rewarded, with all but three out of 39 budgets winning voter approval on Tuesday – including nearly a dozen budgets that went above the state’s 2 percent cap.

Eleven of the 36 budgets approved by voters were allowed under state regulations to exceed the cap due to a host of factors, such as rising enrollments or health-benefit costs.

Four school districts went still higher with so-called “second questions” seeking additional local funding exceeding the cap for specific needs. All four questions were approved. The Chathams and Secaucus sought extra money for additional security personnel in their schools in the aftermath of the Newtown, CT, school shootings.

Four school-construction referendum questions were also approved.

The record-high approval rate was not as monumental as it would have been in the past, since more than 90 percent of New Jersey’s districts have moved their school board races to November. Under the law passed two years ago, districts holding elections in November are no longer required to put budgets to a vote if they stay within the 2 percent cap.

But 41 districts have stuck with April elections, including two that hold only school-board elections. Most of those districts have cited local sentiment that voters should still have a say on school spending.

Of the other 39 districts putting budgets to the vote, the biggest tax increase being sought on Tuesday was in North Bergen, which proposed a 7.8 percent hike. The additional funds were allowable adjustments for additional health-care costs and “banked” money from being below cap the previous year.

But continuing a long string of rejected budgets in that Hudson County municipality, North Bergen voters turned down the proposal once again. Like other rejected budgets, North Bergen’s spending plan will go to the municipal council for any reductions.

Edison, by far the largest of the school districts still holding its vote in April, was also among those losing out on Tuesday – even with a budget below the cap. The fifth-largest district in the state, Edison sought a tax levy increase of just 1.5 percent, but voters rejected it by 150 votes, according to the preliminary count.

Meanwhile, several other districts sought – and won – voter approval of budgets that saw no tax increase at all. Cranbury put forth a budget that called for a 1.5 percent decrease in taxes.

Edison school board President Gene Maeroff said the public had supported the budget the last two years, and the board had hoped to continue to regain staff it had lost as a result of deep spending cuts in 2010. The budget itself would have risen less than 1 percent, adding seven new teachers and other staff.

With the voter rejection of Edison’s budget, the decision is now left to the local council. Still, Maeroff said there is no move afoot in Edison to switch to a November election, which would not require voter approval if the budget is under the cap.

“Our inclination has been not to disenfranchise our voters and to continue to give them the right to vote on the only budget they can vote on,” Maeroff said. “We clearly have a long time to revisit this, and see what we might do, but there was no immediate call (after Tuesday) to change that.”

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