Voters in six Morris County municipalities—so far—have lost one opportunity to participate in the democratic process.
Less than two weeks after Gov. Chris Christie gave them the option, 106 school districts have jumped at the chance to jettison the annual public vote on the school budget and move the vote on board of education candidates to November, alongside the election for political seats ranging from town council to, this year, president of the United States. That represents almost 20 percent of the state’s districts.
In Morris County, as of last Friday, the ranks included Butler, Parsippany, Boonton, Florham Park, Lincoln Park and Randolph, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.
More are expected to follow suit.
This is really no surprise. Many school officials have hated the budget vote for a very long time.
They have valid some arguments:
- Why is the school budget the only one subject to a vote?
- So few people actually show up and vote—often only 1 in 10 go to the polls.
- It costs money to run a separate school election.
School officials have made these arguments for many years, but had not been successful in getting the change passed.
The difference this time around is the 2 percent cap on increasing the school tax levy. The rationale is that districts keeping within that cap are budgeting reasonably, so there is no need to put their budgets to a vote.
Still, it is a vote, a chance for people participate in the democratic process. The public should not take the loss of the right to have a direct say in any part of a governmental process lightly.
The change, for those opting out of the April election, will save a negligible amount of money. According to the Office of Legislative Services, districts spent an average of less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the general fund budget on the annual vote, and the amount saved would actually be even less than that. Taxpayers living in districts with regional high schools—for instance, Washington Township, the Mendhams and the Chesters are within the West Morris Regional district—could actually wind up paying more, OLS warns, if one district chooses to change the vote date while the other does not.
The percent of people voting in the June primary each year in New Jersey is comparable to, or even lower than, the percent who vote in school elections.
And if any tax levy should be voted on it would be the school levy because it is the greatest portion of the total municipal tax bill—more than half on average statewide.
A defeated school tax levy does not automatically mean a cut. It’s up to municipal officials to then decide how much of a reduction, if any, to make.
School officials have never liked this process either, saying municipal officials are not the best qualified to make decisions on school spending and often are influenced by political considerations.
It’s that question of politics that is keeping some districts from eliminating the April election.
The Morris Plains Board of Education, which has not made a decision yet, cited this concern in a letter dated Friday and posted on its website that asks for public input on the question of whether to move the election. That letter notes that the change “places the school election in the realm of partisan politics.”
Pequannock school board members last Monday night reportedly opposed the move, with several saying they believe people should be able to vote on the school tax levy.
Last year was a banner year for school budgets because of an increase in state aid and spending cuts in many districts. Every Morris tax levy passed.
But there are some districts where the budget is often a loser. In six Morris districts, including Jefferson and Parsippany, voters have rejected school spending in at least half of the last 10 years.
Whatever the reasons, be they purely concerns about rising property taxes or other local issues, school officials should be addressing those problems—and “no” votes on the budgets have been good ways to get their attention.
But that won’t be possible in those districts that move that eliminate the budget vote.
Not all districts have made a decision. The Kinnelon Board of Education will hear from the public on the issue at its board meeting Thursday.
Anyone who wants to see the traditional spring school vote preserved should get to his or her next board of education meeting and make those feelings very clear.
Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.
This column appears on several Patch sites serving communities in Morris County. Comments below may be by readers of any of those sites.