Local school budgets last night appeared to be winning voter approval in sizable numbers across the state, a year after nearly three in five budgets were rejected by New Jersey voters, a record-setting year.
"It was just a much less contentious election this year," said Frank Belluscio, a close poll-watcher over the years as chief spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
"The tax cap had an impact, and contract settlement rates went down quite a bit, too, "he added. "I think people understood economies are being implemented."
In Ocean County, school budget approvals outnumbered rejections three to one, when last year it was the other way around. In Morris, only two budgets had gone down in the first results posted an hour after polls had closed.
In Monmouth, it was almost a 10-to-1 margin, when last year just a quarter passed. And by no means an official tally, Cumberland County looked headed toward a clean sweep a year after less than a third of budgets passed.
It is a far cry from a year ago when Gov. Chris Christie had come into office decrying school spending and teacher contracts. Coupled with a lingering recession and steep state aid cuts, voters rejected 59 percent of all budgets.
This year, Christie was all but silent on the school budget votes, his 2 percent tax cap in place, and his budget able to offer $250 million more in state aid. All that combined made for a very different tenor in the votes, with the polls back to low turnouts and happy school district officials.
Still, nobody was predicting record approval rates, not like 2000 when 88 percent passed.
"Seems like places where there are results so far, there has been a turnaround," Belluscio said. “It looks like a majority will pass, but exactly how much is still hard to say."
“I can start breathing again,” Thomas Ficarra, superintendent of Morrris School District, toldafter seeing his budget and a 1.7 percent tax increase pass.
Still, some habits die hard. Hopatcong school district saw its budget defeated for the eighth consecutive year. Superintendent Charles Maranzano toldit could mean the loss of six teacher jobs, depending on what the municipal council does next. Defeated budgets go to the local councils to make possible cuts.
In Fort Lee, the outcome was hanging by a thread. Just three votes put the budget in the winning column, at least as of last night, according to the preliminary results.
"It's very close," Fort Lee Superintendent Raymond Bandlow told"And I'm certainly hopeful that the results will stand once the provisional ballots are counted and the count is official.
“At this point, the yes votes are ahead. We'd rather have it that way than the other way."
Editor's Note: Preliminary statewide results show nearly 80 percent of all New Jersey school budgets were approved yesterday. NJ Spotlight will do a full report later today. Also, a reference in this story that Ramsey's school budget was rejected proved incorrect. The early posted results were mistaken, and Ramsey's budget was approved.