Monday, January 16, 2012


As a citizen and school board member, I'm extremely alarmed NJ legislators on both sides of the aisle approved legislation that will move the school board elections to November but more importantly, take away the public's right to vote on school budgets.

In my opinion, this legislation is supported by dubious arguments that cloud the heart of the matter , i.e., it tramples on our most precious and powerful right as citizens and virtually snuffs out direct participatory democracy in public education. I'm not at all convinced by the primary stance taken by the sponsors of this bill. They believe moving the elections will benefit the public by increasing voter interest and participation in school board elections thereby producing a better quality of school board candidates who will act responsibly when it comes to school spending. I would argue this, in fact, will not be the case since there is a plummeting trust in government and increased apathy by voters. I would argue even further that voting on the school budget actually increases civic engagement and is oftentimes the only reason people are motivated to come out and vote in school elections. In any case, what I am most certain of is the folly of passing a law that takes away the people's right to vote. To do so will only move government further away from the people's control and reduce accountability of our local elected school officials.

When this legislation was first introduced and voted on in the Assembly several years back, former Assemblyman Merkt voted "NO" and said this proposed legislation was an "invasion of people's right to vote" and "fundamentally undemocratic". He also said, "It's part of a very disturbing trend in New Jersey government where the people are seeing more and more of their rights withdrawn and too few protesting the erosion of our democratic rights" and I couldn't agree with him more! If the Governor and our legislators could only see, as I have, how school boards and members of the education establishment are already rubbing their hands together with glee at the prospect of no longer having to answer to the public on the courses and programs they select for our children or how they spend our tax dollars on school operations, facilities, and staffing.

Public education is supposed to be the keystone of democracy and the public should not be denied the right to have a direct say on their school district's educational ideology and on how their tax dollars are spent. Believe me when I tell you, without a vote on the school budget, "we, the people", will not only lose what little input we have now on our school district's education policy making, we will also lose what little there is of holding school boards and administrators accountable for how they spend our tax dollars. Our legislators need to realize taking away the public's right to vote on school budgets will have detrimental consequences. Although the 2% cap has helped reign in out of control school spending, in no way is this cap the "magic bullet" it's been touted to be. This cap will limit school spending but it does not necessarily mean a school budget is educationally or financially responsible. As a school board member, I have witnessed this first hand and I believe most living in New Jersey would testify to the fact the cap has far from alleviated them from their property tax woes. The reality is, cap or no cap, the practice of wise, prudent,and transparent spending seems to have eluded most school boards. The perfect example of this is outlined in a recent report issued by the Common Sense Institute of New Jersey which uncovers the true per pupil costs in our school districts and the need for transparency in local school spending.

Without the school budget vote, the good people of this state would totally have to rely on school boards to do the right thing as elected representatives. One just has to look at our property taxes to figure out the majority of school boards have not done the right thing thus far. And from my perspective as an insider, I can say without hesitation, we just cannot afford to take the chance of taking away the public's right to vote on school budgets.

The bottom line is the school budget vote is the only real leverage the public has to hold school boards accountable as their school district's fiduciary trustees and to ensure budget allocations best reflect the needs of the community.

Lastly, our legislators must understand that the annual school budget is the board’s preeminent policy statement and the budget preparation process is one of the board’s most important duties. Not only must a school board have a proactive and creative involvement throughout the budget development process, they are also supposed to provide for community input during this process, but I will argue that, more times than not, this is not the case. The correct solution is not taking away our vote on school budgets, but passing legislation that will make voting on school budgets more meaningful. The school budget process should be more transparent and there should be more than one mandated public hearing so as to allow MORE public input. Moreover, if a budget is defeated, the recommended cuts made by the municipal governing body should not be allowed to be overturned through an appeal process.

Securing the power of our vote as free people and having a true voice in education outweigh any supposed benefits from signing this bill into law.