A bill to eliminate votes on school budgets that are at or below mandatory spending caps cleared the state Assembly yesterday.

The bill, approved by a 45-31 vote with three abstentions, would also move school board elections from April to November to coincide with the general election. The measures move next to the Senate Education Committee.

New Jersey is the only state that allows voters in most school districts to vote on their school property-tax bills. However, residents don't have the final say on school budgets because budget votes may be reviewed and ultimately overturned by state education officials.

Proponents of the bipartisan bill, sponsored by Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden), say that moving school board elections to the fall will increase voter participation and cut costs.

Roberts said he numbered the bill A15 because school elections typically see voter turnouts of no more than 15 percent of registered voters.

"The fragmentation of our election calendar here in New Jersey has resulted in voter fatigue," he said.

"November school elections would provide greater accountability while reducing unnecessary costs," said Assemblyman David Wolfe (R., Ocean), another sponsor of the bill. "This is a commonsense solution that will do away with the added expense of holding multiple elections, and at the same time, by holding the election at a time of greater voter turnout, will ensure that a larger segment of the public has a voice in the outcome of these contests."

Sen. Shirley K. Turner (D., Mercer), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has long supported measures to move school board elections to November.

"By moving the elections we will make them more democratic and make local school boards more accountable to the voters," Turner said. "We will also save money in a time where we are asking our schools to do more with less, allowing districts to apply those funds to critical programs."

Several lawmakers and others supported one part of the bill but not another.

Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said the group has long supported the elimination of the vote on the school budget.

"There's no other budget in the state that is put up for a vote - the state budget, municipal budgets, county budgets - no other budget comes up for a vote in that way so it doesn't make sense to have school budgets put up in that way," Baker said.

However, the NJEA opposes moving elections to November because they say it would be too late to decide on school budgets in the current year and too early for the next school year. The group - like many opponents - also believes that moving nonpartisan school elections to November would politicize the process too much.

New Jersey residents pay the highest property taxes in the nation; school spending accounts for the largest portion of a property-tax bill.

Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com

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