Local school elections are moving to November. That was the decision Monday night of the Millburn Board of Education, which voted to 6-3 on the change, a move that effectively takes the budget off the annual ballot.
The move, a four-year commitment, is expected to save about $30,000 annually and increase voter turnout.
About two dozen residents attended the meeting, most drawn by the opportunity for public discussion on the issue. Opposition to the move ran about 7 to 1, with most speakers urging the board to let the issue be decided by referendum in the fall.
A motion by Lise Chapman to do just that was denied by the full board, again along the same 6-3 vote.
Chapman was joined by Regina Truitt and Jean Pasternak in opposing the elections move, the trio maintaining voters should have a say over spending. “We have a right to vote on where our money goes,” Chapman said.
Board President Michael Birnberg, and members Sam Levy, Eric Siegel, Jeffrey Waters, Rona Wenik and Mark Zucker voted in favor of the move.
Every municipality in New Jersey must decide whether to keep school board elections in April, or move them to the November general election. Signed to law last month by Gov. Chris Christie, the districts will not have separate budget votes as long as the local school tax levy stays within the state’s 2 percent cap.
Those opting for the move span the state, with every county seeing at least one district adopt the necessary resolution, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association. Livingston, West Orange and Cedar Grove in Essex County have also opted to move elections to the fall.
On Monday, the impasse with teachers’ contracts and the looming school budget battle played a role in Millburn’s debate over moving the election to November.
So did a decision by Princeton Public Schools, which last week voted against the switch. Princeton’s decision was based, in part, on its support of legislation that would give voters a choice on charter schools, with some Princeton board members believing it was "hypocritical" to take away the public’s vote on a budget while at the same time supporting the charter school reform bill.
Waters said he was “baffled” by Princeton’s decision, saying that board was comparing apples to oranges. “It may be apples to oranges,” Truitt countered, “but they’re still fruit. Both issues are about choice. This is about choice."
State officials set a loose deadline for this week for decisions by school districts. The New Jersey School Boards Association predicts the number could top 300 districts, or more than half of all districts that have elections.
School boards electing to move the vote have said the change will save money and increase voter turnout, said Pastnerak, who read from information supplied by association. Districts opposing the move have said there hasn’t been enough time to plan and that the BOE candidates will need to fight for exposure among municipal candidates. Most significantly, some districts have criticized the lost of local control over whether their budgets are approved or denied.
The debate in Millburn was at times heated on Monday night. After the vote, the former school board president Abby Kalan ripped sheets of the BOE's handouts, calling the outcome “garbage.”
During the public hearing, Kalan protested that moving the election date -- and budget vote -- would “take away the role of the people.”
“The heart and soul of this community is the schools,” Kalan said. Newcomers don’t move here because of municipal services like trash collection twice a week. “They move to this community because they think the schools are wonderful.”
The board members voting against the move said they didn’t believe the switch would increase voter turnout, calling that a “misconception.” Typically, about 14 percent of Millburn’s electorate vote in school elections. The number is higher for the general election, up to 7,000 voters in non-presidential years vs. 4,000 voters in April, Chapman said.
Residents will continue to have a say in the budget process, which typically begins in January and runs through April, when the numbers are due for the county’s superintendent review. Millburn Superintendent James Crisfield has said he will continue the budget presentations held with small groups and the larger board meetings.
Monday night’s meeting, for instance, included a discussion on the $77.5 million spending plan for the coming school year. Local taxes account for about 95 percent of the budget and the board restated its position to come under the state mandated 2 percent tax levy.
While voters will no longer have a say on the budget as long as the Millburn BOE stays within the 2 percent cap, any extra spending would be placed on the ballot as a separate question during a November election.
The wildcard in this year's spending plan is the pending teachers’ contract. The district has yet to settle a contract with teachers, who have been working for the first 100 days of school without a new agreement. The two sides have reported they are close to a settlement and have just a few words left hanging. But those are “meaningful words” that have not yet been resolved, Zucker said on Monday night.