School budgets went down in record numbers yesterday, and theories will abound to the reasons why: the fragile economy, Gov. Chris Christie’s heated rhetoric, even the state’s teachers unions reluctance on wage freezes.
But as surmised in years past, one pattern continues to stand out: the higher the property tax increases, the more likely the rejection.
And this time, there’s some hard data to back it up.
In an analysis of the state’s preliminary results that showed an unprecedented 58 percent of budgets rejected yesterday, the proposed tax increases in the spurned budgets averaged better than 5.3 percent. The average was 3.5 percent for the budgets that won approval.
Budgets with no tax increase at all were twice as likely to win support than not, and only seven budgets with tax hikes of 10 percent or more were approved by their local voters. That’s compared to 33 of those double-digit increases that were rejected.
Some of the rejected increases were whoppers, too, although they were largely in tiny districts where big fluctuations are more common.
West Wildwood asked its voters for a 26 percent tax increase, the highest in the state. It lost by a single vote, 32-31, according to the state’s data.
Phillipsburg also asked for an increase of more than 20 percent. It went down by more than 1,000 votes.
But there were some anomalies, too. A half-dozen budgets that actually would have cut taxes for their property owners still were rejected by voters, including Seaside Park, Longport and Bethlehem.
Whatever the details, most agreed that yesterday was a remarkable day in school elections that are typically sleepers in the state’s political landscape.
More than 25 percent of registered voters turned out to vote, unheard of in school elections that historically draw less than 15 percent – and even surpassing most state legislative elections.
When all the votes were counted in all the districts, the nays outnumbered the yeahs by 66,000 voters, representing about 54 percent of the preliminary tally.
An almost triumphant Christie called a noon press conference, and announced it a “watershed moment” for New Jersey.
“It was an extraordinarily clear signal, a statewide referendum on taxes and spending in New Jersey,” he said from his outer office. “The voters have had enough, and they want real, fundamental change.”
He added: “This wasn’t a close call. This has never happened before in our history.”
Even the state’s school boards association acknowledged an unprecedented turn for its members, albeit less agreement on its cause.
“You can’t dispute the statistics,” said Marie Billick, executive director of the association. “It is the highest level of defeat we’ve ever had, clearly a sign of our economic times.”
And the state’s dominant teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, put the blame squarely on the property taxes driven up by Christie’s planned cuts in state aid.
“Yesterday’s school budget elections were a clear message from voters that they do not want to see higher property taxes, which is the direct result of the governor’s decision to cut state aid by more than a billion dollars next year,” said Barbara Keshishian, president of the NJEA.
Others who have watched the ebbs and flows of school funding for decades said the NJEA should not escape blame itself.
But they said the vote appears to show the deep ills of school funding that still exist from from as far back as 1976, when voters last rejected a majority of local budgets and the state enacted its first income tax to help pay for schools.
“New Jersey's school funding—and general funding—system is out of whack,” said Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers Law School professor who led the first court fights against the state’s funding system on behalf of poor schoolchildren.
“There’s far too much reliance on local property tax revenue and far too little reliance on state revenue,” he said. “Yesterday's votes seem to suggest that many voters aren't willing or able to increase their local taxes to bail out the state.
“The consequence, at least in the near term, is significantly less money for public education,” Tractenberg said.