As hundreds of school districts opt for November elections, pols weigh in

TRENTON – The bill was signed less than a month ago, but already, some 242 school districts have taken advantage of a law that enables them to move the Board of Education elections from April to November. There are 538 districts that have elected school boards.

The legislation, A4394/S3148, passed overwhelmingly in the Assembly by a vote of 61-13, with two abstentions, and in the Senate, the vote was 32-4. Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill on Jan. 17.

Supporters of the bill described it as a win-win, saying moving school elections to November could boost voter turnout and save money.

It was not known exactly how much money would be saved. In its fiscal estimate, the independent Office of Legislative Services said it could lead to a “minimal expenditure decrease,” with a savings lower than “0.08 percent average savings on general fund budgets.”

Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald, (D-6), of Voorhees, who sponsored the Assembly bill, struck a celebratory tone today when saying how many districts decided to move the annual elections, calling it “a quick and astounding success.”

“This idea has been talked about for decades but was always killed by inertia or the special interests,” Greenwald said in a statement.  “By bringing all the stakeholders to the table and forging a compromise, we passed this major reform measure in a matter of weeks.

“This truly remarkable momentum benefits both taxpayers and democracy and shows we can get things done when we work together for sensible reform,” Greenwald added.

By not having to hold elections in April, which Greenwald had described as “a costly charade,” there is the potential for savings, he said.

Mike Yaple, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the association supported the bill, but would have preferred leaving out the municipal governments from determining whether or not to move the school board elections.

As of Wednesday, seven towns had decided to move the school elections to November. They include Hamilton Township (Atlantic County), Moonachie in Bergen County, Kearny in Hudson County, Jefferson Township in Morris County, Island Heights in Ocean County, Plainfield and Clark, both in Union County

It was not immediately known if the respective school boards supported the move.

Not everyone was convinced the legislation would ultimately be beneficial, arguing that even if it’s well intentioned, it would give school districts less incentive to be as efficient as possible as long as they fall under the 2 percent cap.

Assemblyman Gary Chiusano, (R-24), of Augusta, along with his district mates, Alison Littell McHose and Sen. Steve Oroho, believed that could be a consequence. They had all voted against the bills earlier this year.

Chiusano, in a telephone interview, said he still has problems with the main aspect of the bill.

“You’re taking away the right of the people to vote,” he said.

In a statement shortly after the bill was passed, he said he found this trade-off  disturbing.

“Although I support the idea of saving taxpayer money by moving the election to November as well as potentially increasing voter participation, it should not be at the cost of eliminating one of the few opportunities in which voters have a direct say in how their tax dollars are spent,” he said.

“Eliminating this vote will remove any motivation for school boards to reduce their budgets,” he said. “Expect to see every budget drafted by a school board that has moved its elections will be at the 2 percent cap, regardless of educational reasons, even in the case of declining enrollment. That kind of budgeting will not lead to property tax relief.”

He said the removal of the public vote was done to gain the support of the New Jersey Education Association.

In a telephone interview, NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said prior pieces of legislation that aimed to move the election were rejected, adding that “the removal of the budget vote (in the recently enacted law) was a positive change.”

Baker said school boards craft budgets that are reflective of their community’s needs and not in a vacuum, and residents will continue to exercise that right. He dismissed the accusation that the move deprives residents of their voting power.

“You have the opportunity to elect the representatives and one of their jobs is to craft a budget,” Baker said. “It’s an odd thing to say that only on school board budgets that vote should exist, but not on other tax-supported budgets.”

As hundreds of school districts opt for November elections, pols weigh in