The South Brunswick Board of Education voted unanimously during Monday evening's meeting to move the annual school election to November. Officials estimated the move could save the district $36,000 and the township $14,000 on the cost of running the April election. The move eliminates a budget vote entirely for spending that falls within the new 2 percent tax cap.
"The bottom line is that this saves money," said board member Barry Nathanson. "It doesn't change anything because we will still work to have the best budget on the table to make sure we, along with the public, pay as little taxes as possible."
Just weeks after Gov. Chris Christie gave them the option, over 100 school districts have elected to eliminate the annual public vote on the school budget. This also moves the vote on board of education candidates to November, who will now be elected next to political seats ranging from the township council to the President of the United States (this year). The rationale is districts that keep within the 2 percent cap are budgeting responsibly, so there is no need to put the budgets to a public vote.
By moving the school election to November, the district has committed to having November elections for the next four years.
Board member Daniel Boyle expressed some hesitance over concern for partisanship playing a role in board of education elections, but ultimately he said his decision was based on economic considerations. Boyle also said he was hesitant about removing the public's right to vote on the school budget.
"Moving the election doesn't remove the responsibility of the board to provide the best education this community can afford," said Board of Education President Stephen Parker.
Taxpayers approved a $95 million general fund levy that carried a 12.2 cent tax rate increase, which raised the school tax rate to $2.802 per $100 of assessed valuation. A township home with an assessed value of $200,000 saw an increase of about $244 in school taxes under the approved budget ($20.33 per month) and a home assessed at $300,000 saw an increase of about $366 ($30 per month).
With state and federal offices also on the November general election ballot, the move would address the low turnout for April school elections. About 15 percent of 24,780 registered voters in South Brunswick cast their ballots in the April 2011 school election.
"By moving the election to November when people are going to vote for other things, they are more likely to remember to vote for the (board of education)," said board member Harry Delgado.
According to the law, the Middlesex County Clerk would assume control of elections that are moved to November, acting as filing officer for nomination petitions, ruling on objections to nominations and designing the set-up of the ballot.
Ballots would include school board candidates in a separate section of the general ballot, and candidates "will not be aligned with any political party or partisan candidates," according to the DOE.
Districts that move their vote will not have to pay for "base costs" of elections, including paying board workers and election personnel, transporting voting machines, renting polling places, printing ballots or other costs, according to the state. A district would, however, be responsible for any increased costs incurred by the shifting of school elections to November. Those costs are expected to be minimal, the DOE said.
Moving the election also requires districts to change the organization schedule of the district's board of education, requiring them to reorganize in the first week in January instead of in the spring. The district's fiscal year would still run from July to July the following year.
Superintendant Gary McCartney said the district would still be holding public hearings on the budget as they had in previous years. Dr. McCartney said he was in favor of the move because if a budget that falls within the 2 percent cap were to be defeated, that budget base would be lowered for the following school budget election.
"If you have a series of budgets that fail you can never make that up," he said. "That affects students and teachers."
Monmouth Junction Elementary School PTO member Lisa Rodgers was the only member of the public to speak about the school election change during the public portion of the meeting. She expressed concerns that the value of public budget hearings would be negated by a budget automatically passing if it falls within the 2 percent cap. She also said it would affect the ability of the community to see the justification for any budget increase.
Ultimately, the board members said they have always acted responsibly with the budget and in the best interest of the students.
"Our tax levy hasn't changed in three years except to restore lost (ratables)," McCartney said. "We've demonstrated incredible accountability to do more with less."
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