There has been a swift and steady tide of school boards across the state taking up the NJ Legislature and Governor Chris Christie’s offer to move the school board elections to November. Locally, this includes the Ramapo Indian Hills district, Franklin Lakes K-8, Wyckoff K-8, but Oakland K-8 voted to stay with the spring elections.
One major criticism to the law is that it prevents voters from directly casting a ballot in favor or against the annual school budget. A vote concerning the budget will only occur if the board fails to stay within a 2% cap on increases.
Supporters of the move point to the savings in not having an additional election in the spring and all the accompanying costs involved in that; and, point to the potential that more voters will actually take an interest in the candidates for school board. School board candidates will continue to run in a non-partisan manner, and their names on the ballot will not be aligned with any political party.
The tradition of communities voting on a school budget in New Jersey is one that many voters feel strongly about, but in reality many voters don’t act on. Also, the lack of interest and voter turnout for the spring election allows for a small group to dominate the outcome in the sparsely attended election.
The actual vote on a school budget has limited influence, much like a non-binding resolution. When local residents vote down a school budget, it kicks the budget to the local governing body – town council – to identify budget cuts. The town council has 30 days to consider a budget consisting of tens of millions of dollars, and when cuts are made they are usually minimal.
The town council is not even the final say on the school budget, as it must also be approved by the State of NJ who can deterimine what is ultimately approved.
The move of school board elections to November has additional benefits and pitfalls. The voter turnout will be significantly higher, and this will lead to the positions becoming more competitive. Voters will be seeking candidates with the courage to be both fiscally prudent and also protective of the integrity of the quality of education being provided.
As the vote on the annual budget will be eliminated should the budget not exceed the 2% cap, voters only recourse will be to vote out members who they view as fiscally irresponsible; with the same basis being used to vote out school board members who irresponsibly make decisions that will negatively impact the education students receive.
The move of school board elections to November may need to be accompanied by the same calls for transparency and campaign finance reform that have been the target of government elections. There are already investigations under way in NJ where teachers have been pressured to contribute and attend fundraisers to support specific candidates for school boards.
The influence of money in campaigns has been addressed on various levels of government, from the federal to the local level, but no measures can completely guarantee the integrity of the process. Transparency is only one factor in assuring the influence of money in elections, the other important factor is that voters care enough to take an interest.
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