This is a column about how important it is for everyone to go out to the polls tomorrow to vote for candidates for school boards and to vote on local school budgets.
But it’s not very relevant for the vast majority of adults in New Jersey because most people will not get the chance to pick candidates or accept or reject the proposed tax bill for their local schools.
In Morris County, only 10 municipalities will hold school elections tomorrow, and because some of those towns are in regional districts, it means only eight budgets are up for a vote. (In Patch-covered towns, votes will be held in the School District of the Chathams, the Morris School District, and Mendham Township — that's it).
The bill that Gov. Chris Christie signed at the beginning of the year to end the practice of the April school election in many towns was wildly popular, with close to 9 of 10 districts eliminating tomorrow’s vote. This year, most school board seats will be filled in November as these positions appear on the same ballot with the president, U.S. senator and municipal council slots. In those cases, the ballot on school spending is gone for good, or at least for four years, when officials could choose to go back to an April ballot.
Most school superintendents and board members have never liked that budget vote. When voters say no, the municipal governing body (such as a town council) gets to do the cutting. It typically winds up shaving only a penny or two off any increase in the tax rate, but no one likes being told how to spend his, or the taxpayers, money.
So now, districts that don’t raise school tax levies by more than 2 percent (or thereabouts, as this is not an airtight cap) don’t have to go for a vote.
Sadly, almost universally, the people who have been disenfranchised don’t seem to care. Few have complained about the loss of the vote. That’s probably not surprising, given the annual voter turnout in April is usually only 10 percent or so.
Still, in 10 communities, voters can and, hopefully, will go to the polls and enjoy their right to vote.
Unfortunately, in all but two of those communities, there’s no contest for board of education seats unless there’s a write-in campaign. Hanover has four people seeking three three-year terms. Pequannock has the biggest race, with six vying for three seats.
But that still leaves the question of the budget. Voters don’t get the chance to have a direct say over municipal or county spending, so the school budget vote has often been a place for them to vent any frustrations they have—one reason school boards have always given for the unfairness of the school budget vote.
Yet last year, every budget in Morris County passed, at least in part because school boards were frugal during very tough times, and that trend is continuing.
In the School District of the Chathams, the proposed tax levy increase is 2.3 percent, estimated to cost the average borough home owner about $307, $122 in the township.
Under the Morris School District’s budget proposal, the average Morristown property owner would get a $71 tax break, while the typical bill in the township would rise $135. The district’s total budget proposal for next year is actually smaller than the current budget.
Hopefully, voters who do get the chance to vote tomorrow know that, have learned something about those candidates who are running and the budget plans and will use the opportunity they were given to pat their elected representative on the back for a job well done, or scold them.
As for those who lost the right to vote tomorrow, they will at least get a chance to vote for new school representatives in November. And that wouldn’t be too early to express their feelings, by voting for candidates who support – or oppose—the April elections.
Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.
This column appears on Patch sites serving communities in Morris and Sussex Counties. Comments below may be by readers of any of those sites.