CHATHAM, NJ - The public portion of the School District of the Chathams Board of Education meeting on Monday night brought heated exchanges between board members and the public over the possibility of moving school board elections to November.
Despite the calls from the public to take a survey or put a non-binding question on the ballot in November to determine the preference of the voters, the board set an Oct. 5 date to decide the issue.
If passed, Chatham would join the overwhelming majority of school districts in the state and hold its school elections in November rather than in April. The move would save about $15,000 and eliminate the need for voter approval on the school operating budget if it stayed within the state-mandated 2 percent cap. Bond referendums would still require voter approval.
The decision by the board to vote on moving elections from April to November reminded resident Amanda Feeman of the $24.8 million referendum that the public voted down last April 21. Soon after the referendum was defeated, board member Richard Connors brought up the subject of moving the vote to November.
"How the outcome of the vote with the referendum came out last time, there is a perception, and I think it's growing, that the board is not necessarily in touch with what the interests of the public are," Feeman said. "Perception does become reality. I think when we have a referendum coming up with big issues to be discussed, I sort of question the timing (of the vote on moving the elections) will truly alienate the public."
Matthew Gilfillan, finance chairman and vice president of the board, announced that a survey on separate portions of the defeated $24.8 million referendum would be presented to the public in the near future with options on each project to determine voter support.
"I don't believe you truly thought that 60 percent of the public was going to say no if you went ahead with the referendum as it was structured," Feeman said. "So there had to be a disconnect. To me, you are doing a survey to ask about the (new) referendum. Perhaps this is a legitimate question to ask (on moving the vote). The real issue to me is that the public is going to get mad. You do have control over the timing of how you get things done politically with the most public support."
Amanda Feeman asks the board to leave the school elections in April in video below
Many of the same people are banging heads in this dispute as they did in the battle over the $24.8 million referendum that centered around the construction of an $11.8 million performing arts center.
During each public meeting on the subject, residents asked the board to break the referendum into separate questions. At first, the board contended that it was not legally possible to separate the questions. When it was revealed that it could be done, the board still refused to do so and the result was 2-to-1 defeat at the polls.
All those speaking during the public portion of the meeting acknowledged that the board has every right to vote on moving the vote to November, but asked the board to consider a non-binding November vote or a survey of the public. Board president Jill Critchley Weber said it couldn't be asked of the public because of "legal restraints."
Resident Stewart Carr, the leading opponent of the move to November, repeatedly asked Weber and the board what the downside to a non-binding vote would be? She nor any of the other board members would answer his question.
Board president Jill Critchley Weber explains that the board wishes to stay within "legal restraints" set by the state statute in exchange with Stewart Carr below
Carr, who is passionate about the fundamental right to vote, argued that the public should be able to voice their opinion on whether they vote on the annual budget or not. He spent three weekends on his own going door-to-door to ask Chatham residents their opinions.
According to Carr, of the 256 people who agreed to respond, 212 said the subject of moving the vote to November was a question to be decided by the public. He also said that 177 of those people volunteered their opinion that voting should remain in April.
Board member John Nonnemacher, an attorney, cross-examined Carr like he was on the witness stand, and pointed the finger at the legislature for making the law that gave the board such power to move the vote. Nonnemacher used a baseball analogy.
"If I steal second base, are you saying I should voluntarily go back to first base?" Nonnemacher asked.
When Carr brought up wording of the state statute on school board elections, quoting that the board "may" vote to move elections to November, Nonnemacher asserted that "may" has the same meaning as "shall."
Here is an exchange between Nonnemacher and Carr during the public portion.
Board members questioned the legitimacy of the signatures that Carr gathered from Chatham residents.
"This is your crusade and we don't see 100 people behind you fighting for it," Gilfillan said.
Chatham senior citizens, Dr. Norman Schaefer and his wife, Irene, told the board that residents they know were still upset about the referendum, especially the confusing ballot question.
"There are many, many people in Chatham who do not think this board is very transparent," Irene Schaefer said. "The way you put things on the ballot that people do not understand. They do not trust you. So, I think this is one way for you to give yourself more credit with the Chatham people. All we're asking is that you let us say yes or no. And you can do that. If you give us the opportunity to vote, you will go up a lot in the pubic's esteem."
Dr. Norman Schaefer says the board has the right to tell everybody "we're going to do what we want," but if they do, it will "be a shame."