School Districts Holding April Elections Down to a Dwindling Few

April 15, 2012

April school elections could be heading the way of the dinosaurs.

Thanks to a newly signed law that allows school districts to switch election dates from the third Tuesday in April to the general election in November, only five local districts — Lawrence, Hopewell Valley, Princeton Regional, West Windsor-Plainsboro and Montgomery — will hold elections Tuesday. Voters in those districts will be asked to pass or fail budgets and elect new school board members.

Statewide, 468 districts moved their elections to November in an attempt to streamline the election process, increase tepid voter turnout and make budget approval nearly foolproof. In school districts that will hold elections in November, voters won’t have to approve budgets unless they exceed the state-mandated 2 percent cap on property tax increases. That’s an especially tantalizing carrot for districts whose budgets are voted down year after year.

“(Elections) have frequently been a frustrating experience because the school board will propose a fiscally prudent budget, one that’s below the cap, and voters will reject it, not because they don’t like the budget, but because of the overall economy or their feelings on other government spending,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

But the prospect of automatic budget approval wasn’t enough for districts that decided to keep elections in April. Some local board members felt it wasn’t fair to cut voters out of the process, or they wanted more time to see how smoothly November elections run.

“There were certainly board members who said they liked the idea of a community being able to vote on the biggest element of their property tax bill,” Lawrence school board president Laura Waters said.

In Lawrence, another major concern of board members was the risk that nonpartisan school board elections would be muddied by party politics if they were lumped in with the general election in November.

Rebecca Cox, president of the Princeton Regional Schools Board of Education, said districts were given just a few weeks to vote on the election change after the bill was signed into law in January.

“We had a very short time in which to decide,” she said. “We would like to see what happens with other districts in this next year before we make any moves to change the elections to November.”

Cox said it’s also unclear whether the promised cost savings will materialize — sponsors of the bill had said November elections could save school districts $8 million to $10 million statewide.

“We don’t know what the cost savings are, and we won’t know until the other boards go to November and tell us what their expenses were,” she said.

Three townships will also hold referendums in coming months:

  • A Lawrence Township measure will be on the ballot Tuesday asking voters to exceed the 2 percent cap by $2.275 million.
  • On May 8, Hopewell Township will ask voters to approve a $4.1 million bond referendum to add sewer service to homes, businesses and future affordable housing units in the Route 31 corridor south of the Pennington Circle.
  • Voters in Robbinsville will be asked in a December referendum to approve a $19.9 million bond to finance a major school expansion project.

Steven Mayer, the Robbinsville superintendent, said the referendum will be set for December because it is one of only five times during the year when school districts are allowed to put out a referendum for school facilities. If voters approve, the district would be able to add 29 classrooms — 24 at Sharon Elementary and five at Pond Road Middle School — enough for 638 additional students.