There’s not a lot to love about school budgets this year but that may drive more voters than usual to the polls Tuesday.
Cutbacks in state funding have forced districts to trim staff, extracurricular activities and programs, which has upset faculty, students and parents. Smaller school budgets have resulted, but some residents may still see a property-tax increase, upsetting recession-weary taxpayers.
Teachers in almost every district have declined to take a one-year wage freeze, annoying Gov. Chris Christie, who has said he wouldn’t blame voters for rejecting school budgets. A Rasmussen Reports poll of 500 voters released Friday found 65 percent of respondents supported the one-year wage freeze for all school employees.
It’s enough to make educators long for the days when the public barely even noticed there were school elections in April.
“There certainly is more awareness this year,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, who along with others is worried that non-related issues will affect what is really a very specific election on a very local issue.
School board elections typically have low voter turnout, usually about 15 percent of registered voters. Last year, 73 percent of budgets were approved statewide, with a 13.4 percent voter turnout, meaning just a few votes can decide an election.
Voters rebelled in 2006, when just 53 percent of budgets were approved, with a voter turnout of just 16 percent. That year marked the fifth year in a row of flat state aid coupled with property tax increases, and voters made it clear they had had enough.
This year has been even more volatile, with the very public battle between the governor and the state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, keeping school budgets in the news on an almost daily basis.
“We want people to cast their votes for the right reasons, not just on emotion,” Strickland said. “Voting down the budget won’t address the wage-freeze issue, and won’t bring back freshman sports. It may just mean more cuts.”
Hammonton School Board President Loretta Rehmann worries that message is getting lost. Her message is that taxes will not go up next year, although some residents and staff are upset about the cuts.
“There is so much anger out there,” Rehmann said. “There are people without jobs, and not getting raises.”
The Hammonton Education Association did not accept a wage freeze, but did sponsor a student showcase last week to highlight all the activities and talents of the students and staff. Several hundred residents attended, and Rehmann said she is grateful for the opportunity to show all that is positive in the district.
“We are hoping that state issues don’t overshadow the budget,” union President Judy Shaner said. “It is a scary time for us.”
It should be, said Larry Cantrell, president of the New Jersey Taxpayers Association. He supported the cut in state aid and the wage freeze and believes everyone, including teachers, should share in the sacrifices of the recession.
“It is shameful to say, ‘Just let someone else pay for it,’” Cantrell said of the NJEA proposal to reinstate an extra tax on those making more than $400,000 per year. “The recession was a global calamity, and all I see them saying is ‘I want mine.’ Taxpayers have been sucking it up for years. Teachers have been living in a bubble. Let’s deal with this now.”
He believes voter turnout will be much higher this year, that many people will be voting on emotion, and that vote will be “no.”
“I hope we do see a large number of budgets voted down,” he said. “The governor has to draw a line in the sand.”
That sentiment is galvanizing teachers and parents who fear even more cuts if budgets are rejected and referred to local municipal governments for review.
“People are paying more attention, but that doesn’t have to mean more rejections,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. “If voters take the time to look at their local budgets, they will see that school boards are trying to save local programs, stay within their cap, and control costs and taxes.”
Districts are taking multiple steps to raise awareness, from Web site presentations to town meetings, e-mails and special events.
The small Estell Manor school will host an ice cream social on election night from 4 to 8:30 p.m. providing ice cream and games for children so parents can vote.
“We’re working with with the superintendent and the Home and School Association,” union president Charles Brandt said. “We’re very small, and if the budget goes down, we’ll go from 21 teachers to just eight.”
Galloway schools Superintendent Douglas Groff said he believes the fear of the budget’s rejection will encourage parents and teachers to come out to support it.
“They know they have to get out, because if the budget is rejected it will likely mean additional cuts,” he said.
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