In the month since the Millburn Board of Education voted to move school board elections from April to November, ending the public vote on the school budget, the issue has become one of the most heated in recent history.
Residents have talked with each other and with – both for and against the move. They’ve brought it up at subsequent meetings, hoping for a reversal. There have been and lots of questions asked.
And several representatives of We Love Millburn, that the law itself creates a conflict of interest for board members who stand to benefit by extending their terms and it also violates their rights as property owners who pay taxes to support the budget.
They have said if the board did not rescind the vote and let voters decide, they would file an a complaint with the state ethics commission.
"It looks like that will be our next step," said Jeff Diecidue after Monday night's meeting, when no action was taken.
Proponents of moving the election – the resolution passed 6-3 – say it will save money and because the school board is bound to stay within a 2 percent state mandated cap when it comes to raising the tax levy, public approval on the budget is not necessary.
At Monday night’s board meeting, Board Member Jean Pasternak, one of the three who voted against the resolution, read prepared remarks, stating she had planned to make a motion to rescind the earlier vote, but realized she did not have the support for that.
“So instead, I want to say that I believe our behavior in this matter has undermined the public confidence in this board,” she said. “The benefits cited in favor of passing the resolution were marginal and the risks are substantial. I think we owe it to the public to explain why this action was taken.”
Pasternak said she had heard from numerous residents who asked why the resolution was rushed through without time for discussion with the community or even much debate by board members and why the public had not been given much notice before it was passed on Feb. 13.
“I could not answer most of these questions,” said Pasternak, adding that the board could have easily waited and evaluated the new law while understanding the “implications for our community—or let the community decide themselves. But we decided to pass a resolution.”
At the Feb. 13 meeting, she said, all but one resident in attendance spoke in opposition, but the board ignored that community input, she said.
“People are confused as to why they were even asked for their opinions,” she said.
She brought up other districts that decided to wait including Chatham, Montgomery, Princeton, Ridgewood, West Windsor and Mountain Lakes and also said that Montclair opted not to move a municipal election to November because, after studying the issue, they said a November election that does not coincide with a presidential election will not bring out more voters.
She also took exception with the idea that a public vote is not needed on the budget because of the 2 percent cap.
“This year we have done a good job in overseeing the budget. But we also know that there are no assurances that future BOEs will be as responsible and do the same,” she said. “Public oversight plays a valuable role. ... The resolution we passed means that the community has lost control in having a real say in the priorities for our schools -- and their taxes.”
Board Member Lise Chapman, who also voted against the resolution, said she understands those concerns but board has voted and it’s time for board members to move on.
“We can revisit it in four years,” she said, adding that they will have plenty of information about the election and turnout by then.
In the meantime, she said, but board has a responsibility to remain under the 2 percent cap and make sound judgments regarding the budget. This year, the budget calls for a tax levy increase of only , well below that cap.
Board members say moving the election to November will not diminish their work at creating a sound budget or their goal of keeping tax increases minimal.
In addition, they say, the public will still have plenty of time to provide input during the budget process, as they always have.