To the Editor,
In the continuing Board of Education’s discussion on whether to move the School Budget Vote from an April vote to November, I have had several questions on what would happen and what is the municipal governing bodies role if the school operating budget were to be defeated by the electorate in April.
To be clear, the Board of Education are elected officials and I respect their role in setting policy for the schools as they have respected the Township Committee and I, in our role in setting policy for the town. I am not offering an opinion one way or another on the merits or not of altering the vote, merely I want to provide a broader understanding of the process to the citizens of the Chathams if the April budget vote were to fail.
Presently the electorate gets to vote on the school budget annually in April. If the Board of Education decides to move the vote to November, as long as the budget is within the presently established 2 percent budget cap, including potential “carry over’s or banked” from unused tax levy’s for the previous three years or up to a maximum of 6 percent increase, the Board of Education members can pass the budget without the need for the general public to vote.
So, back to the question at hand: What happens if the electorate at the current April vote, votes down the school budget? First, in the event that happens, the Board of Education is encouraged by state statute to deliver to the governing bodies in each municipality the proposed defeated school budget within 48 hours of the election and required by law to present the budget and a supporting list of material two days after official certification of election results.
Usually, results are certified in a week’s time. Being a school district, the first action by the Township Committee and Borough Council would be to form a sub-committee to review the school budget. The sub-committee would meet with the Board of Education and through consultation would determine the amount in their judgment is necessary for the general fund tax levy and any appropriations to the capital reserve account. If a majority of either the BOE or municipal governing bodies members are present, the meetings are subject to the Open Public Meetings Act.
Upon agreement, the governing bodies are required to make certification through the form of a resolution to the Morris County Board of Taxation no later than May 19th. The resolution includes the original general fund tax levy on the ballot, the amount of reduction and the new amount to be certified. It also requires a detailed statement identifying reductions and that the revised budget is sufficient to provide a thorough and efficient education. If the Board of Education does not agree with the amount determined to be appropriated for each item in the budget they would have 10 days to notify the governing bodies that it intends to appeal to the Commissioner of Education.
The Morris County Superintendant of Schools would mediate the BOE appeals until both parties reach an agreement. It is important to note that the municipal governing bodies cannot certify a tax levy below the minimum required by New Jersey State statute as set forth in the School Funding Reform Act of 2008. This minimum established by the state is the least of three categories, Adequacy Budget, Local Cost Share and Prior Year General Fund Levy.
Adequacy Budget is the necessary funding level for schools to provide a thorough and efficient level of education. Local Cost Share is calculated by the state using two variables, property values and the district income levels, determining what it believes the municipalities would be able to raise and earmark for school budgeting.
Prior years tax levy speaks for itself. It is equally important to note that while it may not be responsive to the electorates wishes, the governing bodies recommendations would meet the statutory requirements of the budget process if they made little or no change to the original budget as proposed by the BOE on the ballot. They cannot, however, increase the proposed budget. If the BOE does not dispute the governing bodies recommendations, the County Superintendant after ascertaining that the budget meets the requirements of stable school funding and a thorough and efficienteducation, approves the budget.
The above-mentioned are the procedural steps that would take place in the event of a budget being defeated. Understanding that the public has never voted down the school budget since the establishment of the School District of the Chatham’s in 1989, what would likely happen if they did and how would the governing body sub-committee proceed?
From a practical matter, first one would have to look to the prior year's budget approved by the voters. Outside of some kind of dramatic two standard deviation move down in property values, last years approved budget would have to be a baseline. After all, you would have to respect the voters’ approval of that level of funding. Next, the governing bodies would hear the suggestions of the Board of Education weighed against the voter disapproval, hopefully arriving at some common ground. It would be impractical, not in Chatham’s best interest and if challenged, would not stand were the governing bodies to impose draconian cuts to a failed school budget.
The Board of Education school budget vote discussion has brought to light the potential funding challenges of pension and health care reform to our town as well as the serious disregard, almost contempt for the lack of equitable state education funding to school districts like ours by our current Trenton legislative representatives. That needs to change. Hopefully we can meet the challenges we face and the above information provides you with a basic understanding of the municipality’s role in the school budget process.
Mayor, Chatham Township