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Disenfranchising the folks who pay the bills

Within two years of enabling legislation being signed into law, 514 New Jersey school districts moved their board candidate elections to November, to coincide with other national, state, and local elections. At last count, just 28 districts have stuck with the traditional April voting, both for board candidates and for school budgets.

The two reasons most often cited for this lemming-like rush to November voting are (1) greater voter participation in the established November election cycle than in April, when turnout is notoriously low, and (2) cost-savings achieved by eliminating the April election. Rarely do school boards mention publicly their true reason, in my opinion, for switching to November: eliminating any risk of a school budget defeat by eliminating the school budget vote.

November elections do draw more voters, but, in an effort to keep partisanship out of school elections, county clerks have relegated board candidates to the nethermost reaches of the ballot, so far down, in fact, that voters are either overlooking that aspect of the election or simply ignoring contests about which they know little.

It's not surprising that school elections get short shrift in November voting. Political candidates bombard us with mailers, telephone calls, and media advertising for weeks before the election. Even if school board candidates make an effort to promote themselves, those efforts are lost in the noise of a highly partisan November election.

Voters ignoring school elections in November is just part of the problem. In the November/December 2012 issue of School Leader, NJSBA Executive Director Larry Feinsod described how some board candidates felt that "political parties became a factor" in their races. "In municipalities where Democratic candidates won election," Feinsod said, "the school board candidates whose names appeared to line up with the Democratic slate tended to win. In places where Republican candidates received the highest number of votes, those school board candidates whose names appeared to line up with the GOP tended to win."

The cost-savings argument is another weak reason to deprive residents of a school-budget vote. Ridgewood recently made the move to November, saving about $30,000 according to Superintendent Dr. Daniel Fishbein. With Ridgewood's school taxes totaling $85 million, one has to wonder whether its residents are happy with their loss of voting rights on the budget to achieve a savings of three-hundredths of one percent of their tax bill (.0003). Fishbein promised the same scrutiny in the budget process as before, but I am not sure that Ridgewood or any school board can guarantee that result. The need to prove a district's spending plan and put it to the test of a public vote, or suffer the consequences . . . well, that sharpens the senses, so to speak. And sharpens the pencil.

Shouldn't the folks who are paying more than 90 percent of the bill for public education in most suburban communities have a direct way of expressing their dissatisfaction with how their districts are being run? Sure, they can put up and elect candidates who share their views and, for a nine-member board, take control of the board in two years, but voting down a school budget usually gets more immediate attention.

The experience in Ramsey, my hometown and district, is a case in point. In early 2009, the board ended a protracted contract fight with its teachers by giving them a 16.95 percent salary increase over four years (the fourth year was illegal), without obtaining a single cost-saving concession in return . . . and it did so during the height of this recession, when many Ramsey families were suffering financially.

The public was outraged, not only by the unconscionable contract settlement but also by job actions, like refusing to write college recommendations, the union engaged in during negotiations. Residents went to the polls in April 2009 in unprecedented numbers to express that outrage. Thirty-four percent of eligible voters turned out, sending the school budget down to a resounding defeat. (As a reference, just 38 percent of voters statewide went to the polls in last November's gubernatorial and legislative elections.)

Eventually, the Ramsey board got the message. It rescinded the illegal fourth year of salary policy, a move upheld by both the New Jersey Commissioner of Education and Appellate Division of the Superior Court. In the next negotiations go-around with the teachers' union, the board held out until it achieved sweeping health insurance changes. And, in the last three budget cycles, the board delivered to Ramsey property taxpayers, the folks paying the bill, the three lowest school tax levy increases for the general fund in the last 29 years—as far back as we have records. The devastating budget defeat of April 2009 ushered in a new era of trust between the Ramsey Board of Education and the public it serves.

The bloom may be coming off the rose of November voting.

In a recent NJSBA survey, 37.2 percent of responding board members said that school elections had become more partisan in their districts as a result of November voting. Another 12.2 percent couldn't say for sure if that were the case. Just 41.5 percent of respondents—a disconcerting minority—thought that politics were not entering into school elections as a result of November elections. Moreover, slightly over half of respondents said they were happy with November voting, down ten points from a year earlier.

"Board of education elections are now irrelevant," one survey respondent said. "No one cares and no one pays attention with them being in November."

The foundation of public education rests on public support and "buy-in." Silencing taxpayers by eliminating their vote on school budgets undermines that foundation. Allowing partisan politics to enter our school elections opens the floodgates.
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