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Editorial: N.J. School Elections

Voting till they drop

It's time for New Jersey to overhaul the antiquated way it holds school board elections and to stop putting proposed school budgets on the ballot.

A bill in the Legislature would put New Jersey in line with other states that include school board elections on their November ballot, instead of in April.

More important, the legislation would eliminate the requirement that local districts seek voter approval on school budgets that already fall within the state-imposed 4-percent cap on annual spending increases.

If the bill becomes law, voters would still get to weigh in if their districts wanted to increase spending beyond the cap; those budgets would require approval of 60 percent of voters.

Moving school elections to November makes sense especially in New Jersey, which already holds more elections than most states. No wonder New Jersey voters typically suffer from election fatigue and apathy.

School elections in April typically draw less than 15 percent of the state's 4.7 million registered voters.

Putting school elections on the November ballot would increase voter participation and save the extra cost of an additional election, at least $5 million annually.

Too often, school elections become an outlet for angry voters to vent their frustration over high property taxes by rejecting proposed budgets with even modest or no increases.

No other government budget in New Jersey - municipal, county or state - must go before the voters for approval. Neither should school budgets. Local school boards should decide how schools are funded.

Even with a public vote, town officials or state education officials can reject a local board's budget. So, what's the point of a meaningless election?

Voters should elect school board members that they believe would make wise spending decisions and hold them accountable. Those who violate that trust can be voted out of office.

The bill, which cleared the Senate Education Committee earlier this month, faces an uphill battle.

Critics argue that moving school elections to November would overly politicize the process. Board candidates may feel the need to affiliate with political parties. But that's a low risk in a nonpartisan election.

Others say schools could be forced to shut down programs in mid-year if spending above the cap is defeated in November. Districts can avoid that possibility by planning and spending wisely.

Senate President Richard J. Codey (D., Essex) should post the bill for a full vote, and the Legislature should pass it to give New Jersey residents long-overdue relief from election overload.