N.J Lame-Duck Legisature Considers Eliminating School Budget Elections, Requiring County Purchasing Programs

November 29, 2011

 TRENTON — Two new bills dropped into the lame-duck session of the Legislature would, if passed into law, mark significant changes for local governments and school districts.

Municipalities and school districts would be required to participate in county purchasing programs under one bill. It would create potential for wider local government consolidation and shared services.

Another bill would eliminate annual school budget votes for any school districts that keep within the state budget cap and move their school board elections to November.

School budget votes have long been a pet peeve of the educational establishment, because, school officials contend, residents often use the up-or-down ballots to unleash their fury at rising property tax bills.

Both bills are backed by prominent Democrats in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

State Senate Budget Committee chairman Paul A. Sarlo, D-Bergen, is the sponsor of the county purchasing bill, along with outgoing Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan.

The school elections bill is sponsored by incoming Assembly Majority Leader Louis D. Greenwald and state Sen. Donald Norcross, D-Camden, brother of prominent Democratic leader George E. Norcross.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheila Y. Oliver, D-Essex, said she is reviewing the bills and no action is currently scheduled. A spokesman for state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney said no decision has been made about either bill.

Michael A. Vrancik, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Schools Boards Association, said the heavyweight sponsors on the bills suggest that both may move quickly the lame-duck time period after the Legislature’s general election, when controversial legislation often is passed.

County purchasing often involves bulk buying of often-used products and services, but Vrancik said he believes the county purchasing bill could lead to talk of other back-office school district administrative functions being done by county-level officials.

“It sets the stage for a discussion about other consolidations,” Vrancik said.

He said the association believes county purchasing should be optional and not mandatory.

An analyst for the New Jersey State League of Municipalities said the association is opposed to the bill.

“It doesn’t guarantee the lowest price,” analyst Jon R. Moran said. “If it were an option for municipalities to use, it would make a lot of sense. There is a perception is that bigger is better. … But what people really want is good value at a low price.”

The school elections bill would reset three-year school board terms to begin in January after the November election. Currently, they begin in April. Voters would only have the chance to approve or reject spending beyond the state budget caps.

The districts must keep elections during November for at least four years. State officials would retain oversight over district budgets.