Posted Feb. 24, 2012
On Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2012, Millburn awoke to its own St. Valentine's Day Massacre: Six of the nine members of the Millburn Board of Education the night before unilaterally usurped our right to vote on our school budget and school taxes – essentially forever. Rather than allowing the TAXPAYERS to decide whether they wished to give up an inherent property right in voting for school taxes, a majority of the Board of Education – under the cover of darkness, without providing the township proper notice or a hearing – implemented a barely month-old New Jersey law that moves BOE elections from April to November, but also eliminates the right to vote on budget tax levies so long as the tax levy is below the state-mandated 2 percent cap. This is the same BOE that engaged in a protracted, months-long debate about a new "naming policy," yet cavalierly compromised our voting rights in just one meeting.
The upshot: We no longer have any vote on how much taxes we pay for the school district budget – the same budget that costs taxpayers over 52 percent of every real-estate-tax dollar; the same budget that has grown exponentially for the past 10 years while our enrollment has been flattening; the same budget that contains over $10 million in various surplus funds sloshing around. The same budget of almost $85 million of our money (including debt service) for which our tax dollars provide over 95 percent of the District's annual costs – one of the highest local rates in the State of New Jersey – and our BOE saw fit to take away our right to vote on our school budget forever.
Under the new law, either the local Board of Education, the Township Committee or the voters via referendum could decide to move the BOE elections to November. The BOE had the option to leave it up to the voters and taxpayers to make the decision to eliminate our budget voting rights, but they instead opted to ignore the voters and taxpayers. Most of the community was unaware that this vote was even taking place. The community is just now realizing the finality and consequences of the BOE’s decision.
The right to vote on the budget and tax levy provides important community oversight. By eliminating our taxpayer right to vote on school budgets and taxes, we forgo the ability to communicate to the BOE and Administration what the community believes should be spending priorities. It's not just whether a tax increase is within a state-mandated cap; it's a check and balance on what priorities appear within the budget itself. This community oversight has been a part of local school control for decades upon decades in New Jersey. We cannot give up this right!
Some School Board members defended their decision by noting that many New Jersey School Districts had decided to move to the November vote. Millburn, however, has never been like many of New Jersey School Districts. That is the reason many of us are here and not in Ridgefield Park or Union or Wayne or Warren. Is it the intention of our District Administrators and Board of Education to make us like many other New Jersey School Districts, which will serve only to homogenize our schools and drive this District towards the middle? Is that what we really want for our children and our community? Other highly regarded districts, such as Chatham and Princeton, decided to see how the untested law worked and to leave it to their taxpayers to decide whether to alter materially their district's governance. The few members of the public who regularly attend BOE meetings in our town implored our board to do as Chatham and Princeton – but six of the nine BOE members scoffed at or outright ignored those pleas.
Some Millburn BOE members also pointed to low voter turnout for the April school elections as a reason to move the vote to November. But because the new law incongruously ties the BOE elections to eliminating the right to vote on budget-tax levies, our right to vote on the budget has been eviscerated. In effect, these six BOE members decided that because many of us don’t regularly vote in April, they were entitled to take the vote away from us. The message is clear: Six BOE members really don't want to hear what you have to say about the budget and what you pay in taxes.
The 2 percent cap is today’s tax cap and has been in effect for only a few years. It may change in the future to a higher cap, but because of our BOE’s recent decision, we will still not have the opportunity to vote on our school budget and taxes regardless of how much it increases. This BOE’s decision has changed the paradigm in our community forever.
What can we do? First, we believe the resolution approving this change has myriad deficiencies, including at least two BOE members voting in favor potentially having glaring conflicts of interest. One BOE member who also happens to be on the committee negotiating with the teachers' union effectively said he was voting for this provision in order to extend his term (which would have expired with the April 2012 election). The BOE should immediately move to revoke the resolution it passed and vote on a new one – one that leaves it for voters to decide.
Second, the community can seek to recall the BOE members who voted in favor of taking away our taxpayer voting rights. And third, our community may challenge this enabling law on constitutional grounds because the right to vote is a property right and the BOE's taking of that property right resulted in an unconstitutional taking.
The next Board of Education meeting will be held on Monday, Feb. 27, 2012, at 7:45 p.m., at The Ed Center. Come to the Board of Education meeting and let your Board of Education know what you think about their decision to take away your right to vote on your school budget. Or you can send your views to us at info@WeLoveMillburn.com.
We urge all members of our community to circulate this important Community Alert to your friends and neighbors.
– WeLoveMillburn, as submitted by Josh Scharf, Jeffrey J. Diecidue, Ralph Inglese, Abby Kalan, Laurie Inglese
WeLoveMillburn is a non-profit, grassroots, informational organization made up of involved residents whose aim is to make the community a better place to live. For more information go to www.WeLoveMillburn.com or sign up for the group's email newsletter at Info@WeLoveMillburn.com