Roughly 90 percent of the school districts in New Jersey recently decided to move the traditional April school elections to November. In February, the Holmdel Township Board of Education voted unanimously to join 50 other school districts in Monmouth County to take advantage of a new state law that allows us to take this action.
Not surprisingly, one driving force behind this initiative is money. Elections are not cheap to run, and while in the past, Holmdel could split its costs with other school districts, the popularity of the new law made it clear that we could be on the hook for an additional tens of thousands of dollars if we held the election in April, since we would foot a lion’s share of the bill. Only two school districts in Monmouth County chose to keep the April election date, and they will be responsible for picking up the entire tab.
This is real moneymoney we can now spend to buy more library books or computers for our kids.
November elections will also mean greater voter participation in the selection of representatives on the School Board. State law still requires school elections to remain non-partisan, and candidates will be placed on the ballot through petition, not party primary. The school election will be on a separate section of the ballot, and candidates will not be aligned with any political party or grouped with partisan candidates.
By the way, if you are interested in running for school board, you will need to submit your petition to the Monmouth County Clerk’s office by June 5th. You will no longer be able to file your candidacy directly with the School District’s Central offices. The New Jersey Department of Education website has set up a School Election Guidance page, and we expect Candidate Kits will be available shortly. The Holmdel School District web site will post more information as it becomes available.
The election date change also impacts the school budget process. We’ll share more specific details about our 2012-13 school budget in a later column, but in the meantime, let’s take a closer look how these budgets will get approved going forward.
Back in 2011, the state imposed a two percent cap on property tax increases for both municipal and school governments. If local governments wish to raise revenues above that cap, they will need voter approval.
When the Board of Education moved the election date, it began to follow the same rules governing the Township when it comes to the budget approval process. Both municipal and school district officials have the flexibility to make budgetary judgments designed to keep cost increases at or below cap. Anything above that number needs voter approval.
However, the School District still faces two significant restrictions when it comes to meeting its budget needs. First, since we do not have the legal authority to independently issue bonds, voters will still be asked to approve any bonds issues needed to fund capital improvements.
Second, although often overlooked by the public, every budget developed by the Holmdel School District must be reviewed and approved by the Executive County Superintendent of Schools. Under state law, our administration must prove that we are spending money in a prudent and fiscally responsible manner. If not, we have to make changes to the budget before it can come before the Board of Education for approval.
There are, of course, cynics who assume that under the new law, school districts will now automatically increase property taxes by two percent every year. That has not been the case in Holmdel. The Board of Education chose not to raise taxes the first year the cap went into place, passing along to residents the savings generated by a zero increase negotiated for most of our staff that year.
Next year’s budget includes a 1.25 percent tax increase, and we have chosen to ignore $1.6 million in waivers granted by the state that would have allowed us to increase taxes above the 2 percent cap.
We think in these economic times it makes sense to be especially frugal while meeting our goal to provide a thorough and efficient education in accordance with New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards. And in next month’s column we will show you exactly how we plan to do that in 2012-13.
On behalf of my Board colleagues,