Concerns about the elimination of the vote on the budget led discussions Monday concerning the new opportunity to move school board elections from April to November.
Gov. Chris Christie recently signed a bill that allows school board elections to be moved from April to November, with the decision to be made by the school board, the municipal government or the voters through petition.
The board of education has already discussed the issue, and is expected to continue discussions, and possibly vote, at the Feb. 14 meeting.
The Bridgewater Township Council has said it is divided on the issue, and would like to see how the board votes, although the Raritan Borough Council voted unanimously to change the election.
In the case of the regional school district, the township council and the borough council would have to approve a joint resolution to move the elections.
The change would eliminate the vote on the budget, unless the proposed budget ends up being higher than the state-mandated 2 percent cap.
Board of education president Evan Lerner spoke before the township council Monday, expressing his desire to have the elections moved to November, although he emphasized that he was speaking only on behalf of himself, and not for the board as a whole.
"I think the district is in the best position to establish a budget, and the process is extremely open starting in December," he said. "The result has been more and more responsible budgets, and every incumbent has been reelected."
Lerner said his only concern is that the elections could become too partisan, and emphasized that he believes they should remain non-partisan even if moved to November.
Councilman Filipe Pedroso focused his attention on the issue of not voting on the budget, asking about the right of residents to vote on the budget, particularly as student enrollment has decreased.
"The number of students enrolled has been going down since 2007," he said. "There are those that say that if the public no longer has the vote, will the board increase the budget 2 percent no matter what just to keep it going up?"
Lerner said he believes the board of education is far too responsible to act in that manner, and said the public has another method of acting against board members who do not treat the budget with the appropriate weight.
"The best answer is that if that happens, and the voter says [that shouldn't be done], they can vote us out," he said. "We are cognizant of the shrinking numbers, but we think that will turn in a couple years when the economy turns."
In addition, Lerner said, the residents are not voting on any other budget.
"There are very few instances where the public has the opportunity to vote on the budget," he said. "But I'm not one who believes that just because something's been done for a number of years that that is the right way. The public has recourse by choosing who represents them."
But, Lerner said, it is important to recognize that the school administration has a full understanding about how the school budget works, and can make the best decision.
"We are good at doing budgets, and the business administrator is worth his weight in gold," he said. "The [last time the budget failed] the board was in the uncomfortable situation of justifying the budget and [the council] was in the position of looking at the lengthy document in a short time."
"But we are a representative democracy, and if the public doesn't like the budget we put together, they have every right to vote us out of office," he added.
Councilman Matthew Moench questioned whether the board of education would continue its practice of first introducing the budget in December and presenting every step of the way for the residents even if the vote is moved.
"Now, we are good at putting the information out there, but that's with knowing there's a budget vote in April," he said. "Will that still happen without the incentive to go into excruciating detail?"
Lerner said he hopes the budget discussion remains as is in the future regardless of the decision about elections—with an initial hearing in December, followed by several more hearings, and presentations before PTOs and the council.
"There is a give and take from the public," he said. "That's been the process, and there is no reason that should go away. It keeps our community engaged."
Councilwoman Christine Henderson Rose said she hopes people understand how to vote for the non-partisan candidates for the board of education if the vote is changed.
"One concern I have is that in times of change we ensure the public is informed of the changes, and, when we get to November and see all the campaign signs, they understand why there's a part of that ballot that is not Republican or Democrat," she said. "We have to do the best we can to make sure the public is well-informed."
For Mountain Top Road resident Milton Schwartz, he said he is very much in favor of moving the elections to November, citing that he thinks the public would be well served by this move. He said he recently read some of the board of education contracts and was appalled by what he saw.
But possibly moving the elections, Schwartz said, would make the information more well-known.
"Having read the contract, and the copy of benefits attached, I came to the conclusion that the board of education is a criminal enterprise, and I think that the sooner their activities come to daylight, the better the community will be served," he said.
Council President Allen Kurdyla said he knows that the decision to change the elections would only last for about four years anyway, so it could be changed back if it did not work out.
"It's not forever, whatever decision is made can be reversed," he said.
For many of the council members though, they said they were not entirely sure what their position was, but emphasized that they believe the first decision should be made by the board of education itself.
"I believe it is the board's right to decide first," Moench said. "I want to make sure we consider all the information and ramifications for moving the elections."
According to the township's attorney, in response to a question from Kurdyla, there is not a mandated drop dead date of Feb. 17 to choose to move the elections, but that it is recommended because of all the deadlines required through the county clerk's office, which include sending out absentee ballots and other information, all in February.
"I believe that as things move along, we will be able to bring this up for discussion again," Kurdyla said.
The board of education is planning to continue discussion at its Feb. 14 meeting, with a decision expected either that night or at a special meeting Feb. 16.