New Jersey Voters Reject Majority of School Budgets Amid Taxpayer Revolt

New Jersey voters rejected a majority of school budgets for the first time in more than three decades, defeating a record 59 percent of the plans as districts sought to raise the highest property taxes in the U.S.

Voters shot down 315 of the 537 proposals, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association. The last time more than half of the proposals failed was in 1976, when 56 percent were rejected, according to the group. Budgets were voted down yesterday in districts including Ridgewood, Edison and Teaneck.

Residents fed up with rising taxes and stung by the U.S. recession used yesterday’s elections to reject the one area of government spending over which they have a direct vote, school expenses, said Brigid Harrison, a law and science professor at Montclair State University. The results may prove a “game- changer” for Republican Governor Chris Christie as he seeks to usher his budget past the Democrat-led Legislature, she said.

“This is absolutely a clear message voters were sending that they support the governor in his efforts to shrink government spending,” Harrison said. “It’s definitely a win in the tally column for him. It was such a resounding rejection that it was actually the exception for one to pass.”

Voters in Hudson County approved spending plans in Hoboken and Jersey City and rejected North Bergen’s proposal. In Mercer County, Princeton’s budget passed with 67 percent of the vote, while Hamilton Township’s failed. In Essex County, plans passed for Millburn, Bloomfield and Glen Ridge and failed in Cedar Grove. Results were posted on the county clerks’ Web sites.

‘Watershed Moment’

Most of New Jersey’s school districts proposed increasing local levies to fund spending plans, after Christie, who took office Jan. 19, said he would slash their aid in the budget he proposed last month. Christie had urged citizens to reject budgets in districts where teachers didn’t accept pay freezes to deal with his cuts.

“Yesterday’s election is, I believe, a watershed moment for New Jersey,” Christie told reporters today. “Our children and our families can no longer afford a government that wishes its problems away or ignores them.”

School budgets rejected by voters are sent to municipal councils, who can leave the plans intact or make cuts. Municipalities have until May 19 to decide on the tax levy, and boards can appeal any council decision to the state education commissioner. Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the school-boards group, said taxes would still rise in most towns even if voters rejected the plans and reductions are made.

Teacher Jobs

Christie proposed trimming state aid by as much as 5 percent of districts’ budgets to help close a $10.7 billion hole in his $29.3 billion spending plan without raising taxes. Fifty- nine of 588 districts would lose all state assistance under his plan, which needs approval from lawmakers by the July 1 start of the fiscal year.

Faced with reduced funding, 93 percent of the school systems proposed spending plans that called for reducing staff, according to a survey by the school-boards association. More than half opted to cut programs.

The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union, estimated that as many as 6,000 teachers and 10,000 other school workers would lose their jobs under the proposed budgets.

Teachers in 20 districts accepted pay freezes or reductions, while administrators in 143 districts agreed to wage concessions, according to data released by Christie’s office April 19. Christie today reiterated his call for teachers to give up their raises.

Higher Turnout

Each year over the past three decades, less than 20 percent of voters turned out for New Jersey school elections, and a majority of plans were approved, according to the school-boards group. Last year, 73 percent of the budgets passed.

Turnout yesterday was 21 percent in Middlesex County, where voters nixed 15 of 24 budgets, according to the county Web site. Edison’s plan was defeated, 62 percent to 38 percent. Plans also were refused in East Brunswick, Jamesburg, Milltown, Monroe, Sayreville, Woodbridge and Old Bridge, and approved in Metuchen, North Brunswick and West Windsor-Plainsboro school district.

In the Bergen County town of Teaneck, which proposed a 10 percent property-tax increase, voters defeated the budget 4,790- 3,618, director of school-community relations David Bicofsky said in an e-mailed statement. The plan would have raised the local levy by $474 on the average home assessed at $466,100. The unofficial vote count doesn’t include absentee ballots, he said.

Hunterdon County

Belluscio said preliminary results showed Hunterdon County as the county with the largest percentage of rejections, 82 percent, where only five of 28 budgets on the ballot passed.

“Things are tough right now,” he said late yesterday. “In times of a bad economy you find that more budgets are defeated. Plus you have the aid cuts and that resulted in districts having to pass some of that cost on to taxpayers.”

The $85 million budget in Ridgewood, a Bergen County suburb of New York City, sought the elimination of 72 full-time jobs and a 4 percent tax increase. Voters rejected it 2,639-2,537, according to results posted on the district’s Web site.

“There was a frustration with taxes, the loss of state aid and a lot of other issues that just rolled into a tremendous snowball,” said Joseph Vallerini, school board president in Ridgewood. The loss is the first in his six years on the board.

Millburn, Mendham

In Millburn, where the average home is assessed at almost $1.1 million, voters backed an $82.4 million budget that raised taxes 1.5 percent, or an average of $196 a year. The plan passed 1,864-1,266, according to the Essex County Clerk’s Web site.

Millburn schools are slated to lose all of their state funding, or about $3 million, spokeswoman Nancy Dries said.

“There was a heightened interest in this vote because of the governor, and certainly there was concern over whether it would pass,” said Dries. “This was the largest turnout we’ve had in years.”

Christie’s spokesman Michael Drewniak declined to say how the governor voted on the school budget in his hometown, Mendham Township. The district proposed raising taxes by 3.48 percent, as Christie’s plan cut all of its state aid. The budget passed, 51 percent to 49 percent, according to Morris County’s Web site.

Princeton Regional Schools proposed a 3.9 percent tax increase in its $71.5 million plan, even as officials cut spending by 3.54 percent, according to Lewis Goldstein, assistant superintendent of human resources.

In South Orange-Maplewood schools, where budgets are approved by an appointed panel instead of voters, the Board of School Estimate approved a $108.6 million plan that eliminates 76 aides and calls for a wage freeze. The district lost $5.3 million in aid under the Christie proposal.

“It’s certainly not something we took lightly,” said Mark Gleason, the district’s school board president. “This was a difficult year because of that state aid cut. This budget involved some really tough choices.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Terrence Dopp in Trenton, New Jersey, at tdopp@bloomberg.net.

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