4 School Districts OK November Elections

Jessica Masulli Reyes | New Jersey Herald
01/26/12

 Four Sussex County school districts High Point Regional, Green, Lafayette and Newton have decided to move school board elections to November, and possibly forgo a public vote if the budget is kept under cap.

The county's other 22 school districts may also move their election date from April to November. Some were waiting for guidance from the state about the new legislation, guidance that is on its way in the form of a Frequently Asked Questions document sent Wednesday night to school districts.

"There are a lot of questions out there and (the school districts) are looking for the answers before they make this important decision," Sussex County Board of Elections Administrator Marge McCabe said.

The law, signed by Gov. Chris Christie Jan. 17, permits a Board of Education, municipal government, or 15 percent of voters to move the April school board election to the November General Election. By doing so, the public budget vote would be eliminated if the district can stay under the state's tax cap, which is usually 2 percent unless the district spent significantly less the previous year.

"The schools have been asked to notify the county as soon as possible, but no later than Feb. 27, the deadline for filing petitions for the April 17 election," McCabe said. "That is what the state is recommending, as well as us."

Districts that have already decided to move their election cited finances as the reason for switching.

High Point Superintendent John Hannum said although there was some concern about politicizing the election of board members, the biggest factor in changing the election was to save money. The High Point Regional Board of Education, which serves Sussex Borough, Wantage, Lafayette, Branchville and Frankford, voted 8-1 Monday night to move the election.

"Number one, we are saving the taxpayers money by eliminating an election, and we are going to keep our budget under 2 percent," Hannum said. "We hope to come in significantly under the 2 percent cap."

The Frequently Asked Questions document from the state explained that unlike in the April election, school boards would not incur any costs based on paying board workers, voting machine transportation, overtime for county election personnel, rental of polling places or other election costs.

"These costs are already covered by either the state or the county as part of the existing November General Election," the document read.

Sussex County school districts currently share a pro-rated cost of the April election, which in April 2011 cost about $45,000 and was divided among the county's 26 school districts based on the number of registered voters in each district, McCabe said. If a lone school district decides not to move its election to November, it may incur a cost for the April election that could be as high as $15,000.

The FAQ document backed up McCabe, and said that there could be high cost for districts that choose to hold elections in April.

For those that do move the election to November, the state law reads that school boards would be responsible for any costs above and beyond the normal election, but the state document said the costs are minimal. McCabe said some of the additional costs could be for advertising, or programming and testing the voting machines.

"We are waiting to hear how the state is going to give us a formula for charging the schools for the additional costs in November," McCabe said. "Normal costs will not be passed on to the schools because the cost won't go up."

Lafayette Chief School Administrator David Astor said the Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday night to move the school election to November to save money.

"We are looking at the financial end," he said. "We are able to help save some tax dollars with sharing the cost with the town."

Newton Superintendent Kennedy Greene said that after weighing the pros and cons of moving the election, the Newton board also voted 9-2 in favor of moving the election.

"It will become increasingly a bigger negative to keep (the election) in April because of the cost," Greene said. "It may become more expensive."

Greene said the district is just starting to look at its budget, so he cannot confirm that it will be under the cap, but last year the district had a budget decrease.

"Our intention is to be fiscally responsible," he said.

The state's Frequently Asked Questions document cleared up many questions that districts had about the new law. For example, school board members whose positions were up for election in April will continue to serve until November. It also clarified that school boards must still hold public hearings on the budget, even if it will not be voted on.

It also explained that once the election is moved, it must be kept in November for four years before it could be moved back.

Attached to the document was a sample resolution that school boards or municipalities can now use in moving the election. School boards across the entire state have started moving elections.

The New Jersey School Boards Association said that as of Wednesday, 56 of the 590 boards in New Jersey had moved their election to November. The number is expected to rise now that the state has given further guidance on the new law.

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