CHATHAM, NJ—Voters in the School District of the Chathams will continue in April to decide whether to approve or vote down the district’s budget and to elect members of the board of education.
A motion that would have changed the annual school board election to November and that would have eliminated a public vote on the board’s proposed spending plan failed to garner a second at Monday’s meeting of the education body. Therefore, any change in the election day will have to wait at least a year.
The New Jersey Legislature recently approved a bill, signed into law by Governor Chris Christie, that gives New Jersey school districts, governing bodies or voters the option of moving board of education elections from the traditional April date to November to coincide with the state’s general election.
Authorization for the election date change can come through a vote of the school board itself, a resolution from the governing body or bodies in the community in which a school district is located or through a petition signed by registered voters in the municipalities where a school district is located.
If a school election date is changed to November that change must stay in effect for at least four years in a row.
A change to November would eliminate a vote by residents on a district’s school budget that stays within the state-mandated cap on spending that now stands at 2 percent per year. In order for a school board to spend for a restricted number of items outside the cap limit it would need to propose a separate question on the November ballot outlining specific reasons for asking to spend outside the limit.
Board president, Tom Belding noted, however, that the county executive superintendent must give final approval to Chatham’s school budget, whether the election is held in April or November.
At Monday’s meeting, board member Al Burgunder said he was against the move to November because it would take away from voters the ability to discuss a proposed school spending plan during the spring when it is first put forward by the education body.
He felt community discussion on the budget, if it waited until the fall, would be too separated from the time the budget is proposed—usually at the middle or end of March.
Burgunder added that if voters wanted to send a message to the board that message would be more effectively sent during an actual vote on the budget itself in April rather than by just defeating board members at a November election.
Board member Steve Barna said the Chatham board did not advocate for a change in the election law in Trenton and was concerned about the rules now in place.
However, he added, if the board did not vote to change the election he was concerned the public would say the school body was losing an opportunity to save the cost of holding a separate election in April and wanted only to be accountable to the 2 to 4 percent of voters who turn out for spring elections.
He also said Christie would say any board that did not change to the fall date was failing to take advantage of a portion of his “toolkit” designed to save money on school financing.
Although the cost of the April elections is around $15,000, Chatham school board members estimate the cost of the election in the Chathams to be about $9,000.
When the question of the election date change was brought up Barna moved for the change and Burgunder seconded the motion.
However, Burgunder then asked Belding whether the seconder of a motion had to support that motion.
Belding said it was his understanding that a second to a motion implied support for the motion.
Burgunder then withdrew his second and the motion did not move forward.
In remarks preceding introduction of the motion, board member Jill Weber said she agreed with many members of the public who spoke at Monday’s meeting that it would appear that having the election in April would separate the school election from the political arena.
She added, however, that single issues, such as the Chatham High School parking lot had a way of “creeping in” even in the April elections and these single issues could be used to defeat a school budget.
However, board vice president Richard Connors said there was no urgency for the Chatham board to change its election date this year and the right of the people to vote was more important.
In addition, he noted, the April votes give those without children in the schools a say in how schools are funded.
Connors also said he had faith that, if the school board presented voters with a sound budget that deserved to pass, that budget would pass.
At the public input session preceding the election date proposal, former board member Alan Routh said New Jersey lawmakers had a long history of fiscal mismanagement and he didn’t see why the residents of Chatham had to suffer because of that.
He added moving the election to November also would cause voters to lose interest in the schools because they would have no say in the funding of those schools.
Routh also noted programs in the schools would be at risk because if state officials cut funding to Chatham’s schools, without a budget vote process in April, the district’s residents would have to wait more than a year to see if program cuts would be restored.
Township resident Karen Jackson said, however, she was in favor of changing the election date because keeping it in April only maintained the rights of those who wanted to vote “no” on a budget.
During the board’s budget discussion process, she added, residents had plenty of opportunity to see how a budget is prepared and what proposals are being put forth.
In addition, Jackson noted, the budget would be finalized when the county superintendent approved it no matter what date the election was held.
Further, she said, if the budget is defeated the borough and township governing bodies would decide what, if anything, is to be cut from the spending plan, and “why should we go to them if they have a different idea than we do about what the budget should be?”
Chatham Township Committeewoman Kathy Abbott, speaking as a private citizen, said a lot of work went into promoting passage of the school budget in April and she didn’t think the public would have enough interest in the process if the school board of election were not held separately from the general election.
A number of speakers at the public input session said they were afraid future Chatham school boards would not be an transparent as the current board in presenting proposed budgets.Therefore, discussions around the April vote assured maintaining that transparency.
Others said they were afraid Chatham would suffer because the cap might be set lower in the future, those causing cuts in school programs.
Another resident said she didn’t trust Christie because, a few years ago, he had promised only a certain percentage cut in state school aid and then cut it drastically.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools Michael LaSusa, who will take over as superintendent this summer, replied the county superintendent’s power to veto any line item in the budget would remain whether the election was to be held in April or November.
He added, “The cap is statutory. The governor can’t lower it. That is a legislative process. The governor also has told districts they can make up for any reductions in state aid through their taxing authority.”
Borough resident Marcia Casais, said she had never voted against a school budget but feared that politics would be injected into the school election process if the vote were moved to November.
Since his children finished school about 35 years ago, according to borough resident Paul Suszczynski, the school board election in April was his only link to what goes on in the schools.
He added since many students in the schools had a sense of entitlement, as did many school board members, the only way to keep an eye on them was through the April elections.
On another matter, LaSusa said he expected the new addition to the high school to begin operating immediately after the President's Day holiday. He noted only a few issues with teacher desks and technology were holding up the move to the new facility and classes are functioning well in the temporary classroom space they have occupied since construction on the addition began.