Canary in a coal mine

.page-node .panel-col-first { background:transparent none repeat scroll 0%; border:0pt none; padding:10pt; width:630px; } Voters in more than 500 municipalities will go to the polls today to approve or reject individual school district budgets – an election that could be an early harbinger of voter attitudes in the 2009 race for Governor, especially in blue and white collar communities. Some pundits believe that the state of the economy will make it more difficult for school districts to get their budgets passed.

Reductions in local education budgets could be problematic for Gov. Jon Corzine if voters hold him accountable for specific budget cuts, like football, art and musical and advanced placement programs.

In 2008, voters approved 74% of the school budget referendums, 411 of 555. But many of these votes were close: of the 411 passed budgets, 156 of them (38%) passed with 55% of the vote or less. Of the 22 school districts which attracted more than 5,000 voters, eleven of them failed. Of the eleven of those districts that passed, just three did so with more than 55% of the vote.

A total of 106 budgets were either approved or rejected by a margin of +/- 25 votes, and votes on 199 budgets were +/- 50 votes.

Voter turnout in April elections is typically about 15%.

New Jersey's economic woes could set the tone for the local school budget referendum votes next month.

"In the face of a slow economy, the governor's infusion of state aid for public schools helps taxpayers across the state," New Jersey School Boards Association President Kevin Ciak said in a press release after the 2008 budget votes. "Every dollar contributed by the state represents a dollar that does not have to come from the pockets of property taxpayers. It's clear: State aid eases the burden on property taxes, and helps to build community support for the schools."

In 1990 and 1991, when Gov. Jim Florio's $2.8 billion tax increase (which increased aid to local schools) generated massive opposition, referendums to approve school budgets were approved by 52% and 56% of voters, respectively.

If a budget is defeated by the voters, the local governing body has the authority to recommend budget cuts – a job Mayors and Councilmen tend to loathe. But eventually, it will be Corzine's Commissioner of Education, Lucille Davy, who will decide whether to authorize or reject proposed cuts in education. Ultimately, that holds the Corzine administration accountable.

  Canary in a coal mine