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Now, towns have 4 weeks to decide school budgets

After the biggest school budget defeat in at least three decades, town councils and commissions statewide have just four weeks to figure out what to do with the hundreds of district spending plans rejected by voters Tuesday.

1 1/2 yr old Cali Fisler of Washington Township watches dad Keith Fisler vote at the 9-10 gym at Washington Township High School. ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff )
1 1/2 yr old Cali Fisler of Washington Township watches dad Keith Fisler vote at the 9-10 gym at Washington Township High School. ( Elizabeth Robertson / Staff )Read more

After the biggest school budget defeat in at least three decades, town councils and commissions statewide have just four weeks to figure out what to do with the hundreds of district spending plans rejected by voters Tuesday.

They have their work cut out for them. Many of the budgets already contained painful staff and program cuts as well as higher taxes to compensate for deep cuts to state formula aid.

Schools and the parents of students lobbied hard for public support for the proposals, but a majority of voters said no - and they said it even louder in South Jersey.

Statewide, 41 percent of 537 budgets passed, down from about 73 percent last year, according to the Department of Education. That was the lowest rate since 1976, the last time fewer than half passed.

In Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, only 31 percent - 32 of 103 - won approval.

In Burlington County, voters in five of 40 districts accepted the budgets: Bass River, Eastampton, Moorestown, Riverton, and Woodland. In Gloucester County, nine of 27 budgets passed. In Camden County, the success rate was half - 18 of 36.

Gov. Christie called the overwhelming rejections a "watershed moment" and an opportunity for significant change.

"Voters have spoken loudly and clearly," he said Wednesday, calling the vote a "statewide referendum on taxes and spending in New Jersey."

To deal with an $11 billion state budget gap, Christie has called for cutting school formula aid by almost $820 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1. That comes on top of a $475 million withholding of aid in the current year that forced districts to deplete surplus funds they had saved to offset anticipated budget cuts.

Since the cuts were announced, Christie and the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, have been in an escalating war. To lessen what, in many cases, will be sharp reductions in staff and programs, Christie has repeatedly called on district employees - particularly teachers - to take a one-year pay freeze and contribute 1.5 percent of their salary to health benefits. The governor encouraged voters to reject budgets in districts where teachers hadn't taken the freeze.

According to preliminary data provided by the state Education Department, budgets were approved in 13 of 19 districts where teachers agreed to freezes.

The local results were quite different. Florence, Southampton, and Mantua, which wasn't on the state list, all saw their budgets rejected despite the concession. Woodland Township was the only freeze district where the budget was approved.

NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer didn't disagree that voters had spoken out against high property taxes, but he blamed the proposed tax hikes on Christie's proposed budget.

"This governor has just cut $1.5 billion from public education. That's why taxes are going up. That's what voters rejected," Wollmer said.

If Christie believed in "shared sacrifice," a call he has made frequently in recent weeks, he would reinstate the so-called millionaires' tax, Wollmer said.

One thing not in dispute: This year's budget contest attracted more attention than any in recent memory.

Unofficial statewide voter turnout was 27 percent, the Education Department said. In recent years, turnout was roughly 15 percent to 17 percent.

In the three-county region, turnout was between 20 percent and 22 percent, the highest since 2006.

"There's usually a correlation between lots of budgets failing and high voter turnout," said Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. "It's not always a hard-and-fast rule, but the voter turnout is usually higher when the economy is sour."

Still, some voters approved budgets despite tax hikes.

Washington Township posted a big "thank you" message on its Web site. Its budget, which called for a 9 percent tax hike, was approved in what the district called a historic turnout.

Black Horse Pike Regional's budget also passed. That "is unusual for us, but it was a concerted effort," Superintendent Ralph Ross said.

For the vast majority, efforts failed. School officials, already troubled by the cuts they had proposed, worried what further reductions would do to education.

"I don't think people have comprehended yet the impact of the 89 staff cuts in the budget," said Susan Bastnagel, spokeswoman for the Cherry Hill School District. The proposal, which would have raised the tax levy 4 percent, was defeated.

Cinnaminson Superintendent Salvatore Illuzzi said his district's budget, which called for a 10 percent tax increase, already included the loss of 27 jobs.

"Obviously with the defeat yesterday, those cuts will continue, and that has implications for class size and continuation as far as programs at the high school," he said.

Some votes were incredibly close. In Westville, the spending plan was defeated, 223-222, in unofficial returns. In Pitman, it failed, 771-769.

Municipal governments, many dealing with their own fiscal problems, have until May 19 to agree on school tax levies for defeated budgets. There are legal limits on how much the budgets can be reduced, and the municipal governments may overrule the voters. But historically when budgets are defeated, they've tended to make further cuts.

"That's the usual course of events," said Frank Belluscio, another school board association official. "There have been occasions in the past when they couldn't find anything to cut, but it's rare."

Belluscio said that additional trims might be difficult to find, and that he hoped municipal and district officials would work with county executive superintendents.

The municipal bodies may come up with suggested cuts, but only the tax levy they set is binding. Districts may make different cuts.

Districts can turn to the state Department of Education to appeal the levy set by the municipality, but Christie has put school officials on notice not to expect much mercy.

Education Commissioner Bret Schundler took a more moderate stand Wednesday. "If the proposed cuts would actually harm school districts or eliminate essential programs, we will support the school district's appeal," he said.

Some municipal officials did not sound as if they relished their task.

Cherry Hill Township Council President Dave Fleisher said how school budgets are determined should be reformed. "You have a Board of Education that takes six months to construct a budget, and now in relative short order the council has a few weeks to review it," he said. "I don't shy away from the responsibility, but the entire process is divisive and another symptom of New Jersey's broken system."

In Winslow Township, school budgets have been voted down regularly since the district was created in 2001 after the Lower Camden County School District was disbanded, Township Committee member Chuck Flamini said.

"We feel it's our obligation to take a good hard look and make sure the town is getting value for what it's investing in," he said. "The thing is, we haven't finished [the 2010 township] budget yet, and now we have to go work on the school budget."

Evesham Mayor Randy Brown must contend with two defeated budgets after residents voted down spending proposals for the township school district and Lenape Regional.

He said he had heard two schools of thought about the vote: Those who rejected the budget were tired of continually rising taxes, while supporters were concerned that the more money was taken out of the schools, the greater chance that education in Evesham would deteriorate.

Brown planned to ask school officials to propose ways for the township to trim the levy and "come up with a solution that doesn't cost anybody a job."