A bill to move school board elections in New Jersey from April to November cleared the Senate Education Committee yesterday and could head next to the full Senate.
The bill would also eliminate the public's ability to vote on school budgets at or below the state-imposed 4 percent cap on annual spending increases. School districts seeking to spend more would still be required to seek voter approval in November; such budgets would require the approval of 60 percent of voters.
The bill was approved in May by the Assembly by a vote of 45-31. The bill cleared the Senate Education Committee by a vote of 3-2, but its passage in the Senate is far from certain. The bill must also return to the full Assembly because amendments have been added.
Proponents of the bill hope moving school board elections to November would increase voter participation and cut costs by eliminating the expense of an extra election.
"It's obvious from the turnout figures, year in and year out, that people don't focus on school board elections held in April," said State Sen. Shirley Turner, chair of the Senate Education Committee. "By holding the school board elections in November, there will be greater focus on those who are seeking to control millions of local education dollars."
Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts Jr. (D., Camden), a sponsor of the bill, has said school board elections in April typically see voter turnouts of less than 15 percent of registered voters.
But some critics argue that moving school elections to November would overly politicize the process. Over time, they say, school board candidates might feel the need to affiliate with political parties in order to gain access to funding, which they would need to reach voters in the midst of higher-profile races.
Senate President Richard J. Codey is among those who remain to be convinced of the bill's merits.
"He's concerned that if we move the elections to November it would make school board elections partisan, but at the same time he understands the need to encourage voter participation. Right now he's trying to reconcile those two concerns," said Jen Sciortino, Codey's spokeswoman.
As Senate president, Codey determines whether a bill is posted for a vote by the full Senate, so his support is critical.
The New Jersey Education Association has long supported eliminating votes on school budgets under the state cap, but opposes the requirement of 60 percent approval for spending above the cap.
The NJEA is also concerned that if spending above the cap is defeated in November, schools could be forced to shut down programs in mid-year.
New Jersey is the only state that allows most voters to vote on school property-tax bills. School budgets are ultimately reviewed and subject to revision by state education officials.
New Jersey residents pay the highest property taxes in the nation, with the largest portion of the taxes going to schools.