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Letter to Editor: Leave School Votes Alone

Resident wants to retain the right to vote on the school budget each year.

Dear President Belding, members of the Board of Education (BOE) and Assistant Superintendent LaSusa:


I understand that the BOE will be . In short, through this legislation, the election date of school board members would and the public’s right to vote
annually on the school district budget would be eliminated so long as such
budget does not exceed the statutory tax levy cap (i.e. 2% greater than the
prior year).  

I oppose adoption of A-4394/S-3148 because of the provision
eliminating for at least the next four years the public’s current right to
vote annually on the school district budget.

As you may recall, I sent a letter dated April 23, 2011 to the BOE and
then-Superintendent O’Neill on this topic in connection with Proposed
Resolution 061-10/11. That resolution, which was originally promoted by the
New Jersey School Boards Association, was introduced at the regular meeting of the BOE on Monday, March 28, 2011 by Board Member Kenny and was seconded by then-Board Member Routh. The motion failed by a vote of 2-6 (with one Board member absent). I applauded the decision of Board members Belding, Barna, Burgunder, Chatinover, Connors and Gilfillan at that time and I encourage the current BOE members to similarly vote against adoption of A-4394/S-3148.

I reviewed the “Overview of Plusses and Minuses” document that Assistant
Superintendent LaSusa utilized in his remarks to the BOE at its last
meeting on Mon 1/23/12 concerning this topic. The eleven “Pros” that he
cites highlight just why adoption of A-4394/S-3148 would not be in the best
interests of the citizens of the Chathams:

  • “Widespread support in educational and political circles.” Legislation that would diminish scrutiny by the public would of course be supported by these constituencies.
  • “Eliminates risk of a defeated base budget.” This “risk”(budget vote) promotes,  although doesn’t necessarily assure, direct accountability to the public. Elimination of this “risk” would decrease accountability to the public. Undoubtedly good for budget crafters and administrators. Potentially bad for the general public.  While the new legislation would continue to require public hearings for the annual budgets, that is insufficient justification for eliminating direct voter input as a second level of scrutiny and oversight.
  • “Budget process would be consistent with that of other levels of government.” I do not follow the logic.  Insufficient scrutiny and accountability are contributing factors to the less-than-stellar operational and fiscal track records of our various levels of government. If anything, the discussion should perhaps be going in the opposite direction (i.e. arguably budgets in addition to BOE budget should similarly be subject to direct vote by the public in certain circumstances).
  • “Any increase in state aid gives district greater flexibility while remaining within cap.” Flexibility is fine but not at the cost of diminished direct accountability to the public.
  • “Saves time and cost.” The savings (approx $15,000 annually; estimate provided by SDOC Business Administrator) do not justify relinquishing the right to vote on the budget.
  • “November is when voter turnout is greater.”  If greater voter turnout is truly the goal of this legislation, then move the BOE member vote to November and continue to have the budget vote in April and just continue to spend the aforementioned $15K.  (According to Acting DOE Commissioner Cerf in document dated Jan. 25, 2012, any costs to move election to November would be “minimal”, so there would presumably be little if any incremental cost to SDOC in this two-vote scenario.)
  • “Eliminates the risk that voters will take out frustration on school district budget…”  See bullet point #2 above.
  • “Changes the nature of “selling” the budget to one of “informing” citizens of the budget.” “Selling” [perhaps “justifying” is a more appropriate word] increases and maintains accountability while “informing” potentially decreases accountability. This point is particularly galling in that the citizens of the Chathams have, with (I believe) one exception, consistently approved the SDOC budget for many years. While Assistant Superintendent LaSusa appears to view “advisory committees, presentations, publications, etc.” as an inefficient use of resources, I view such items as integral components of a healthy and necessary vetting process.
  • “Potentially provides greater stability in year-to-year budgeting because tax levy increase to 2% is guaranteed.” Functionally built-in budget increases over the years in the public sector are what got us into our general fiscal mess in the first place. Quoting from my letter of April 23, 2011 – “These times of “…unprecedented fiscal crisis…” argue for rather than against maintaining budgetary decisions in the hands of the voters. This is the very time to seriously consider the negative, as well as positive, implications of actions such as zero-based budgeting, gross budget diminution and per-pupil budget diminution. Rather than relying primarily on the usual items for budgetary belt-tightening (e.g. layoffs, attrition, deferred maintenance, curtailing of elective programs, other), “third-rail” items such as salary/wage/benefit renegotiations or reductions in anticipation of or prior to contract expiration would then perhaps be openly confronted rather than avoided. Dictating by fiat the passage of budgets within the statutory tax levy growth limitation could potentially prevent or substantially curtail discussion and debate on these and related items.”
  • “Our initial understanding from network of Business Administrators is that many districts will move elections this year (some already have adopted the resolution).” Sounds like there are a lot of uninformed and/or apathetic citizens in many districts. Citizens of the Chathams shouldn’t be among them.
  • “Phil Stern strongly endorses the move and also believes it gives the Board strength from a collective bargaining position…” I’m sure that Mr. Stern, whoever he is, is a very competent individual. Just not sure how the citizenry are in a better position with built-in budget increases than with two levels of annual accountability to the public (i.e. vote for BOE members, vote on budget).

As a procedural aside, thank you for publicizing this item on the SDOC
website and encouraging members of the public to comment at the BOE meeting on Monday. Having said this, I am curious as to what facts and
circumstances have changed since March 2011 that justify utilizing valuable
BOE time and taxpayer time and money to reconsider an item which appears to be substantially identical to one that was rejected 2-6 by the BOE in March
2011.

The right to vote, in any forum, should not be voluntarily relinquished
absent compelling circumstances. No such compelling circumstances exist
here. As is often the case, an attempt is being made here to hoodwink the
taxpayers. The only difference is that this time it is being championed on
a bi-partisan basis by both the legislative and executive branches of our
state government. To its credit, the BOE did not take the bait in March
2011. It should not take the bait this time either.

Thank you again for your consideration and patience in formally addressing
for yet a second time this topic which has potentially far-reaching
implications to the citizens of the Chathams.

Sincerely,

Stewart Carr
3 Crestwood Drive
Chatham, NJ 07928

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