Residents in just three local municipalities will have a chance to vote on their local school budgets Tuesday, taking part in what was once a quirky, infrequently used New Jersey exercise in democracy.
Voters in Atlantic City, Hammonton and Bridgeton will be the last to vote on their local school budgets in April, following changes to state law that took effect in January.
The changes allow towns to move their April school board elections to November, either by a resolution from the local governing body or school board, or through voter approval.
Under the law, only districts that seek to exceed the 2 percent cap on their tax levy must seek voter approval in November. And new board members will take their seats in January, similar to other local officials.
The goal was to cut costs by paring away one of the state’s many low-turnout elections. At the same time, supporters hoped to increase turnout by pairing it with the November elections.
Districts that switch to November do not have to pay the costs of these elections, while those that retain April elections do. Atlantic County Superintendent of Elections John W. Mooney said last year’s elections cost Atlantic City about $20,000 and Hammonton about $8,000, and believed this year’s elections would run in the same range.
Locally, 16 districts in Atlantic County, 17 in Cape May County, 13 in Cumberland County and 12 in southern Burlington and Ocean counties switched their election dates. Across the state, almost 90 percent of eligible districts switched to the fall.
In Atlantic City, eight people are competing for three three-year seats, while two others seek to serve the final year of George Crouch’s term. Crouch left the board in September under a new law that prohibits someone with a criminal record from serving on a school board. Crouch had a 1992 drug conviction.
Also up for a vote is the district’s $118.2 million school budget, which would raise the school property-tax rate by about 1 cent.
In the resort, lingering memories of the political regime of the once-powerful Callaway organization seemed to have led the Board of Education to maintaining April elections, district Superintendent Fredrick Nickles said.
The group, a consortium of friends and supporters of former City Council President Craig Callaway, got its initial toehold in politics through school elections. Starting in the late 1990s, the organization was able to successfully support favored candidates with bushels of questionable absentee ballots that boosted them onto the board.
The group’s power sharply diminished following Callaway’s 2006 corruption conviction.
Nickles said there was still fear that the district would be unduly influenced by the partisan nature of resort elections.
Atlantic City Board of Education President Shay Steele said in February that he was concerned the district elections could be steered by partisan currents, and said the option to change dates remained available.
In Hammonton, where the Town Council nearly overruled the district’s choice, school board President Joseph J. Giralo said residents deserved a say in school budgets.
On the ballot are four candidates seeking three three-year seats, as well as a $16.1 million budget that Giralo said would reduce the school property-tax rate by about 1 cent.
He said he believed a number of other districts chose to move elections to allow them to surreptitiously raise local budgets to the state limits.
Giralo anticipated the election would cost the district about $7,000 and believed the cost was justified.
“We should never take that vote away from the public, ever,” Giralo said. “It’s the largest part of your tax bill: 60 percent; it’s 70 percent of some communities’ tax bills. And you would have no say on it? I don’t think that that’s right.”
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