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Letter: Community Alert - We Lost Our Right to Vote

WeLoveMillburn writes about the Board of Ed's decision to move elections to November, eliminating the public's chance to vote on the budget in April.

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 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 . 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

M OKeef February 24, 2012 at 04:58 PM
The irony here is, had this issue been put up for a public referendum, there was a better than 50/50 chance it would have passed and this public controversy could have been avoided.
Hedley February 24, 2012 at 06:58 PM
Just because the 6 people who attend the BOE meetings in order to criticize everything the BOE does are upset does not make this a "public controversy." I wonder whether We Love Millburn is willing to pay the annual cost of a separate election. I doubt it. They don't love Millburn that much.
Carolyn Most February 24, 2012 at 07:38 PM
Once again, rather than providing a cogent argument, you personally attack those expressing their opinion and those who take the time and make the effort to attend BOE meetings and make public statements. I don't agree with Josh and Jeff on many points - though I do on this one, but at least they are willing to make a clear, data based argument and do so publicly. The real question is why is it that you need to hide behind an anonymous handle while you blindly defend the BOE and administration at every turn acting as their online attack dog? Perhaps you are a BOE member, a senior administrator, or a friend or family member thereof?
M.Moore February 24, 2012 at 07:48 PM
This screed is hardly a clear, data based argument. It's typical WLM hyperbole - "St. Valentine's Day massacre", "under the cover of darkness" - I just can't take WLM seriously when they go on like that. And, putting aside their drama, I don't agree their points - ultimately, just like with every other budget in this country, our control rests with our ability to vote out those who craft the budget. We have not been disenfranchised.
Hedley February 24, 2012 at 08:18 PM
Hard to claim disenfranchisement when hardly anyone comes out to vote in the BOE election as it is. No one cares because no one votes. At least now, more people will vote on the BOE candidates. That is supposed to be a bad thing?
Noreen Brunini February 24, 2012 at 08:28 PM
? forPatch/Laura: I vaguely remember reading the Nov 2011 election turnout was quite low; similar to an April BoE election turnout. Any chance you have this data - voter turnout in April 2011 and Nov 2011 - available to you?
Hedley February 24, 2012 at 10:14 PM
The Essex County Clerk shows 5,147 votes cast. But each voter could vote for more than one person so the actual number of voters must be much less than 5,147.
Laura Griffin February 24, 2012 at 10:22 PM
Oops! Good catch, Hedley. You're right! The percentages of voter was roughly 15 percent in the April election and 24 percent in the November township election. (I printed the exact percentages during the election and will find them.)
Bobby February 24, 2012 at 11:52 PM
The relevant number is 1341 votes for the 4/11 budget vs 559 against. So the budget passed with 70% of the votes cast, but only 10% of the 14,000 registered voters. If the budget was more important to the citizens of Millburn, the turnout would have been greater. For school board, a paltry 1,200 votes was required to get elected. This is not representitive democracy. When moved to the general election, a candidate will at least have to earn the vote of more than a sliver of the population.
Noreen Brunini February 25, 2012 at 02:20 AM
Seeing my request here, a friend emailed me results of the 2011 elections: Bobby, I wouldn't classify either of these elections as having earned more than a sliver of the 14,000 registered voters but general election did bring out a slightly larger percentage of voters. Last Township Comm Race Dem - Seth E. LEVINE 1,421 23.23% Dem - Stephen THOMAS 1,478 24.16% Rep - Robert T. TILLOTSON 1,620 26.48% Rep - Sari GREENBERG 1,595 26.07% Write-In 4 0.07% Total votes cast 6,118 divide by 2 because can vote for 2 = 3059 approximate voters (as hard to know how many single bullet votes cast). Vs Last BOE race: - Michael BIRNBERG 1,551 22.04% - Amy JUSTICE 1,103 15.68% - Manish C. SHAH 1,132 16.09% - Lise P. CHAPMAN 1,797 25.54% - Rona WENIK 1,416 20.13% Write-In 37 0.53% Total 7,036 votes divide by 3 as you can vote for 3 is 2345 approximate voters (as hard to know how many single bullet votes cast) but apparently per above only 1900 voted on the budget itself . The highest school board vote turnout I am aware of was in the 1990's and was in the 5000 voter range when there were about 12,000 registered voters and that included a bond referendum which was voted down. Larger numbers only seem to turnout for BOE election if the majority want to send a message and vote something down.
LDSF February 25, 2012 at 05:53 AM
Who knows when will be the need for a vote down? Pet projects are not new. Keeping the Millburn taxpayers informed on spending is legitimate. The local vote maintains local control and governance. A 'bypass' will lead to more mandate or maybe homogenic consolidation.
Time4Dick2Go February 25, 2012 at 06:39 AM
As long as suburban districts keep sending guys like Dick Codey to Trenton to "represent" u,s our property taxes will never go down. Every town in District 27 sends 10 - 20x in Income Taxes what they get back in property tax relief, aka state aid. Whining about not being able to vote on a school budget that is going to increase at 0 - 2% per year, but ignoring the way the legislature lets the supreme court divert all our money to 31 school districts, is why we are perpetually screwed. If you want real property tax relief, turn WLM into OccupyTrenton.
LDSF February 25, 2012 at 02:35 PM
If you don't get involved and informed, you turn WLM into WLT, from loving Millburn to worship Treton.
Laura Griffin February 25, 2012 at 03:13 PM
You might be interested to know that Bloomfield voted to keep the elections in April, reversing an earlier vote to move it. http://patch.com/A-rbH5
LDSF February 25, 2012 at 03:31 PM
Thanks Laura for the information.
Laura Griffin February 25, 2012 at 07:55 PM
I posted the story here on M-SH Patch as well. http://patch.com/A-rh3C
Bobby February 29, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Noreen, you are somewhat overstating the turnouts as there are some undervotes, people only voting for one township or BOE candidate. More important, this general election did not have an statewide or presidential decisions. I would expect this November to have a much higher turnout.

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