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Column: The Vanishing School Budget Vote

Almost 1 in 5 districts statewide has already eliminated the April vote.

Voters in six Morris County municipalities—so far—have lost one opportunity to participate in the democratic process.

Less than two weeks after Gov. Chris Christie gave them the option, 106 school districts have jumped at the chance to jettison the annual public vote on the school budget and move the vote on board of education candidates to November, alongside the election for political seats ranging from town council to, this year, president of the United States. That represents almost 20 percent of the state’s districts.

In Morris County, as of last Friday, the ranks included Butler, Parsippany, Boonton, Florham Park, Lincoln Park and Randolph, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

More are expected to follow suit.

This is really no surprise. Many school officials have hated the budget vote for a very long time.

They have valid some arguments:

  • Why is the school budget the only one subject to a vote?
  • So few people actually show up and vote—often only 1 in 10 go to the polls.
  • It costs money to run a separate school election.

School officials have made these arguments for many years, but had not been successful in getting the change passed.

The difference this time around is the 2 percent cap on increasing the school tax levy. The rationale is that districts keeping within that cap are budgeting reasonably, so there is no need to put their budgets to a vote.

Still, it is a vote, a chance for people participate in the democratic process. The public should not take the loss of the right to have a direct say in any part of a governmental process lightly.

The change, for those opting out of the April election, will save a negligible amount of money. According to the Office of Legislative Services, districts spent an average of less than 1/10 of 1 percent of the general fund budget on the annual vote, and the amount saved would actually be even less than that. Taxpayers living in districts with regional high schools—for instance, Washington Township, the Mendhams and the Chesters are within the West Morris Regional district—could actually wind up paying more, OLS warns, if one district chooses to change the vote date while the other does not.

The percent of people voting in the June primary each year in New Jersey is comparable to, or even lower than, the percent who vote in school elections.

And if any tax levy should be voted on it would be the school levy because it is the greatest portion of the total municipal tax bill—more than half on average statewide.

A defeated school tax levy does not automatically mean a cut. It’s up to municipal officials to then decide how much of a reduction, if any, to make.

School officials have never liked this process either, saying municipal officials are not the best qualified to make decisions on school spending and often are influenced by political considerations.

It’s that question of politics that is keeping some districts from eliminating the April election.

The , which has not made a decision yet, cited this concern in a letter dated Friday and posted on its website that asks for public input on the question of whether to move the election. That letter notes that the change “places the school election in the realm of partisan politics.”

Pequannock school board members last Monday night reportedly opposed the move, with several saying they believe people should be able to vote on the school tax levy.

Last year was a banner year for school budgets because of an increase in state aid and spending cuts in many districts. Every Morris tax levy passed.

But there are some districts where the budget is often a loser. In six Morris districts, including Jefferson and Parsippany, voters have rejected school spending in at least half of the last 10 years.

Whatever the reasons, be they purely concerns about rising property taxes or other local issues, school officials should be addressing those problems—and  “no” votes on the budgets have been good ways to get their attention.

But that won’t be possible in those districts that move that eliminate the budget vote.

Not all districts have made a decision. The will hear from the public on the issue at its board meeting Thursday.

Anyone who wants to see the traditional spring school vote preserved should get to his or her next board of education meeting and make those feelings very clear.

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.

This column appears on several Patch sites serving communities in Morris County. Comments below may be by readers of any of those sites.

Maxim Sapozhnikov February 02, 2012 at 01:33 PM
DidUReallyJustSayThat, I suggest you pay some property taxes, and then check how they are spent. Unless you are a public service employee, you'll be an angry man, too.
RGJ February 02, 2012 at 03:16 PM
I think if you want to make a general, generic, macro statement, a lot of teachers are under-paid and over-compensated. The benefits part that was a tag on in the 70s contracts became a monster. And starting salaries for top notch teachers in, say, high school special ed physics, or doing anything in a Camden or Newark, are silly-low, not enough to keep someone who is working to make a sole living as opposed to a second income DINK. And, really, you can't ignore the days/hours/time worked factor. The NJEA likes to complain that some teachers have to work a second job in the summer to make ends meet. The punchline is -- they can.
Beach Mover February 02, 2012 at 03:22 PM
That is pretty much how I fell RGJ. There has to be some way to say a Kindergarten teacher, science teacher, gym teacher, special needs teacher, music teacher are different. The only reason for a increase should not be that you are their another year.
Maxim Sapozhnikov February 02, 2012 at 04:25 PM
Yep, RGJ has nailed it dead-on. Thanks for expressing what I failed to.
madison nation February 26, 2012 at 01:17 PM
lets keep in mind these teachers have to work 181 days give or take ...
LV Taxpayer February 26, 2012 at 01:45 PM
How many hours per day? 7 or 8, MAX??? I can't remember the last time I worked an 8 hr day. 9 or 10 is more like it. And for a whopping 1% annual raise for an 'excellent' rating. No wonder they don't want merit pay.
Mikey D February 26, 2012 at 02:08 PM
"to live in nice, safe towns" Isn't Madison one of those towns because of what you consider our overpaid police? They succeed at their job, DESPITE being down (by last count) 8 full time officers. The guys that are making $150K on the force? Working 60-80 hour weeks to cover the lack of manpower. Ask one of them, see how happy they are about being short officers (although I'm sure they like the OT bucks). So it's better to have overworked PD at $150K per, or hire more officers and lower the per officer payout and get (perhaps) a fresher, larger force? It will mean more $$$ overall to the PD, but result in a better product IMO.
Maxim Sapozhnikov February 26, 2012 at 02:53 PM
Actually, Montville teachers work 173 days a year, according to the collective bargain agreement. The official workday is less than 7 hours but I assume they do some extra hours checking homework and stuff.
DidUReallyJustSayThat February 26, 2012 at 04:06 PM
Doubt it is 173, state law requires 180 days of student instruction to receive full state aid. And all districts have a few days additional for teachers to do their in-service training.
LV Taxpayer February 26, 2012 at 05:15 PM
in long valley, they check homework en mass, when the kids are “receiving video instruction” (AKA, watching movies). They go weeks sometimes without handing back homework.
Beach Mover February 26, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Might be in reference to how many days they have to work minus sick and personal days
DidUReallyJustSayThat February 26, 2012 at 07:58 PM
The latest posted contract is very clear - 186 days. http://www.perc.state.nj.us/publicsectorcontracts.nsf/Contracts%20By%20Employer/BF693DF4E09631C6852570BB007064BB/$File/Morris%20BE%20and%20Morris%20EA%202005.pdf?OpenElement Document page 51, PDF page 55. Too many people just make up numbers and think that the specificity (173!) gives them an air of authority.
Beach Mover February 26, 2012 at 08:11 PM
I still think with 10 sick days and 3 personal days they only need to attend 173 days to keep job and do want contract requires. Just one way to look at it
Beach Mover February 26, 2012 at 09:30 PM
Sorry just read contract 10 sick days and 6 personal days so teachers for this contract years had to be in school 170 days to be not in breech of contract I could not find ths 186 days but I am sure it is in there
DidUReallyJustSayThat February 26, 2012 at 10:05 PM
"Teachers employed under a ten-month contract shall not be required to work in excess of 186 days." Most teachers do not use up their sick time because it's the only disability coverage that they have.
Beach Mover February 26, 2012 at 10:29 PM
Wonder what that really means? If BOE sets calendar ag 180 days teachers usually work 2 extra "in service " days. I do agree most teachers do not use all sick and personal they either bank them for a future sickeness or save to redeem when retired Depending on the calendar they can work quite a few days less then the requirement and still not jeopardize pay or job. Just the truth.
Maxim Sapozhnikov February 27, 2012 at 12:17 AM
I have a copy of the previous (not the latest) collective bargain agreement for Montville. It says 173 days, black on white. If a law demands more instruction days, the rest likely comes from substitute teachers.
DidUReallyJustSayThat February 27, 2012 at 12:29 AM
You can't be serious . . Substitutes?? No school district has signed a contract with less than 180 staff days in decades.
Prentiss Gray February 27, 2012 at 03:16 PM
I've yet to see anyone in this discussion talk specifically about what's in the budget and that's the problem. Most of us don't know enough about where our money is going so it's easy to spin in ignorance about "overpaid teachers" and "school budgets that are 70% of our taxes." If you claim it's too much money you need to have more specific proof than parking lots that are empty at 3:00pm. The teachers I know work hard. They work late into the night and have to squeeze in all the other time they'd like to spend with their families, just like the rest of us do. I agree that we do need to vote on school budgets, but I wish we, as a community, knew a lot more about how that budget was built. However that would mean really understanding how the school systems work, day to day. I'll tell you why we don't have better schools, we don't care enough to be involved a lot more. It's enough for us to complain about the cost and claim that "the market will sort it out" because we don't want to take responsibility for our biggest and most important expenditure. Unfortunately, it's difficult to take anyone seriously who claims that the budget should be cut, when they can't be any more specific than "teachers don't work hard enough and they make too much money." That's a pretty much "Fact free" argument.
Beach Mover February 27, 2012 at 03:24 PM
I do believe most teachers work hard there is a legitimate a question about work hours and days. Look at this little tid bit in teachers contract, (Whenever a teacher is assigned to cover a class for a period of time that will require the teacher to develop lesson plans, provide instruction, develop assessment tools, and/or grade tests, the teacher shall be paid, in addition to 1/140th for each lost preparation period, a daily stipend of $39) I think the best way to cut budget in many towns is to have less teachers. Class sizes in Long Valley have gotten to 15 in some cases at the 4 different schools. I would also put the teachers jobs out for 9 month salaries and full year benefits and retirement and see how many takers. Might be nice to if I am wrong. I think many teachers would take a starting salary of about 42 K and full benefits and retirement for 9 months work. Maybe not. That would save about 10% in many budgets.
Steve Wells February 27, 2012 at 03:26 PM
Bravo, Prentiss! Finally someone said what needed to be said. I attend every BoE meeting in Madison, and, except when there is a high-profile issue that generates NIMBY complaints, never are there more than a dozen or so citizens in attendance. People are quick to pass judgment without putting in the effort to ascertain the facts, or to try to influence policy.
Beach Mover February 27, 2012 at 03:51 PM
Here is some of the information that Did you really just say that posted. Some interesting provisions. Teacher Work Year 1. Teachers employed under a ten-month contract shall not be required to work in excess of 186 days. a. Three of these days shall be used for teacher in-service programs. The programs shall meet the state requirements for continuing education hours. b. The in-service programs shall be 7 hours in duration beginning at 8:00 A.M. and concluding by 3:00 P.M. There shall be one hour designated for lunch. c. Two of these days shall be used for parent-teacher conferences. d. One of these days shall be the opening day for teachers. e. 180 days shall be student days. The last three days shall be the minimum length required by the state. f. Teachers new to the system may be required to attend one additional day of orientation. Helping teachers shall work a 192-day schedule and carry a full teaching assignment. They shall be paid an annual stipend of $7629 per year.
Prentiss Gray February 27, 2012 at 03:54 PM
I think you might be cutting costs without understanding the work. More than a third of the work of teaching doesn't happen in the classroom, it's preparation. Apparently that clause attempts to make up for the over time the "Fill-in" teacher will incur by covering for someone else. Certainly making the classes bigger makes the schools less likely to be effective, there are hundreds of studies on class size that clearly indicate smaller is better. 12 to 15 students in a class is what most school systems dream about. I hope we all want the most effective schools possible, which is why making them cheaper is a false goal. What we really want is the best schools we can reasonably afford. Did you know that Long Valley has one of the best school systems in NJ? Careful before you mess with that.
Beach Mover February 27, 2012 at 03:58 PM
Mr Gray having sat on a school board I have not seen "100 of studies" that have shown what you say to be true. Can you post the links to 3 or 4 that you seem to know of?
Maxim Sapozhnikov February 27, 2012 at 04:10 PM
Union stooges are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. 1) The school budget *IS* almost 70% of the property tax. That's an absolute fact, and anyone who wants to argue against it is should put some money where her mouth is. I could use extra cash. 2) Teachers aren't overpaid but they are grossly overcompensated. Absolutely nowhere in the private sector one would find lifetime tenure, sabbaticals, paid degree education, or cumulative sick days. They have turned into rich fat cats they used to argue against. 3) We don't have better schools, not because "we don't care" - that's a disgusting lie, everyone who has children obviously cares - but because there is absolutely no incentive for the teachers to improve. Why should one work better if both employment and a yearly raise are guaranteed, and competition is outlawed? 4) School budget can and should be cut - to *ZERO*. I'd rather pay more for a public school where *I* choose what my kids are taught, how it is done, and who gets to do that. There is a pretty short step from forced education to forced labor.
Prentiss Gray February 27, 2012 at 04:35 PM
I'll go you one better, google "smaller class size research" and you can judge for yourself. By the way, it's good to hear from someone with some actual experience for a change.
Beach Mover February 27, 2012 at 04:44 PM
I was only half serious. I have read many on both sides.My opinion is that class size is totally a function of the teacher and what type of students. I know it is a tired story but when I was in school we had class sizes of 25 to 30 and we scored better then students on test today. Where were all the studies then?? We all really know what the answer is, caring parents and discipline in he classroom. If these two things are meet class size is not that important. When we had class sizes of 27,28 in Long Valle, about 2001 and 2002, our grades did not suffer, I actually believe they are not as good today as they were 10 years ago when we were "crowded"
Dan Grant February 27, 2012 at 05:05 PM
Of course schools take about 60-70 percent of the property tax dollar. That isn't as important a number as the fact that the property tax payer pays 93-97 percent of the cost of a Constitutionally required public education. The State Legislature and many Governors simply don't want this expense or issue on their plates. We need a broad based tax to support what is in effect a State requirement if we are going to reduce property taxes and people have to decide which Tax is worse, an incremental increase in Sales Taxes or Income Taxes and with it a major reduction in property taxes or this slow painful death by property taxes.
Prentiss Gray February 27, 2012 at 05:50 PM
Still, it's always important to validate what we "feel" or "believe" with tested information. Tests have changed, requirements have changed, students and teaching have changed. From the little bit I've investigated, Long Valley is getting a lot of educational bang for it's bucks. I would also bet that's due to parent and community involvement.
Maxim Sapozhnikov February 27, 2012 at 06:30 PM
Dan, while the Constitution of New Jersey mandates to provide free public schools, it doesn't regulate the curriculum. Subjects beyond civics, math, basic science, and English language should not be bankrolled by the public. As for your suggestion to switch school financing from property tax to income tax, it reeks of redistributionism. Income tax is currently paid by less than half the state residents, whereas property tax is paid by all (except Section 8 leeches). Moreover, property taxes can be controlled locally, whereas income taxes passes through sticky hands of Trenton bureaucracy.

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