The board of education is divided over the issue of —and much discussion Tuesday was split between concerns over making elections too partisan and the possibility of denying residents the chance to vote on the budget.
Gov. Chris Christie recently signed a bill allowing municipalities to move their school elections to November, to the general election. Residents would vote on their board members at that time, and would not vote on the school budget unless it is proposed to be above the statewide approved 2 percent cap.
According to Business Administrator Peter Starrs if the election date is moved, it takes effect for a minimum of four elections, and the reorganization takes place in January. Those board members whose terms expire in April serve until the January reorganization, he said.
In addition, Starrs said, nominating petitions would be handled by the county clerks office and be due June 5 for this year.
Although the state has not provided any guidance about the deadline for changing the election date for this year, Starrs said the board's attorney has recommended doing so by Feb. 27, which is the due date for submitting nominating petitions to run for board.
And as for the budget if elections were changed, Starrs said the board would submit a temporary budget within the cap by March 30. If the board intends to exceed the 2 percent cap, the question about the budget would be submitted to the county clerk in September.
If the budget is approved, it goes into effect, and if it fails, the temporary budget becomes the final one.
Of course, Starrs said, if the budget does not exceed the cap, the residents do not get a chance to vote.
There are three ways to change the election date, Starrs said—either by a resolution from the board of education; from resolutions passed by both the Bridgewater Township Council and the Raritan Borough Council; or from voter approval with a petition submitted by at least 15 percent of legally qualified voters.
The board was split on whether to move forward with the change or to hold off for at least this year while seeing how other districts deal with it.
"I don't think it's right to take the public's voice away on the school budget," said board of education member Jill Gladstone. "I think it's one more piece of checks and balances, and I think the public's voice should be heard."
Gladstone said she believes the district should hold off and keep elections in April for this year.
"To do our job right, we have to be responsbile managers of the budget, get through this year and see the effects on other districts," she said. "If we do move to November and something happens where we have to go above the cap, we won't know until November. Then we can't hire teachers and buy textbooks for September."
"I agree with that," added board member Arvind Mathur. "I think I'd like to wait a year and see how it plays out. I don't think there is a pressing need for us to act now in a rush."
Gladstone said she is concerned that sending the board elections to November would introduce partisan politics into the choosing of members.
And several members agreed.
"I think it will change the nature of school boards in the state," said board of education vice president Patrick Breslin.
Board member Jeffrey Brookner, who said he is fully supportive of changing the election date, said he understands the concern about partisan politics.
"I share the concern about partisanship, and if part of this proposal was to switch into a full election cycle with party nominations, I would very much oppose that," he said. "But this does maintain the school board as non-partisan."
Brookner said he believes moving the elections to November would be the best idea and also convince more people to take part.
"I think the elections are buried in April, and for us to consider that as a true public vote is a farce," he said. "But we don't vote on township, county, state and federal budgets, so why should we vote on school budgets?"
And in sending the elections to November, board of education president Evan Lerner said, the budget is created by those who are experienced and maybe more people will take part in choosing their representatives by coming out to vote.
"I think we are a fiscally responsible board and don't see any reason we wouldn't be," he said. "I think we are all accountable and will be responsible."
But for Lerner, he believes eliminating the budget vote from the elections is actually best for the students themselves.
"I think what's better for the kids is that the budget never fails," he said. "When it does, we end up losing a lot of money."
Superintendent of Schools Michael Schilder said he feels the same way, and has been hoping for years for a chance to have the elections moved to November.
"My very strong feeling is the budget process, particularly the defeat process, is very flawed, and it's not good for the kids," he said. "I can't come up with any reason why a defeated budget that cuts more money somehow benefits the children."
Schilder said that the board of education, with himself and Starrs, works for almost five months to develop a budget that meets the needs of the students. But when it is defeated, he said, it goes to the township council, which has two weeks to learn everything about the budget.
Schilder cited that the township council is required by law to determine how much should be cut if a school budget fails, and that that puts the members of the council in an unfair position, having not been part of the original budget discussions.
"And then they move forward and say how much should be cut," he said. "I think this hurts the kids, and this change [in election time] very much helps."
In the past 10 years, Schilder said, five of the district's budgets have been defeated for a total loss of $6.5 million.
"That is a lot of money, and in many respects when you are trying to wrestle with a budget every year, we are constantly trying to catch up," he said. "No one can convince me that that process is right."
"I understand some of the drawbacks, particularly the politicizing of the board elections, and that's a good point," he added. "But in my mind there are so many benefits to the kids that they far outweigh the drawbacks. To me, this is a game changer."
Still, board member Cindy Cullen said, she is concerned that, without the option of voting on the budget, some of those elected to the board in the future might not actually be interested in the welfare of the students.
"When I was first involved on the board, there were people who were not interested in the children, they were interested in taxes, so their whole strategy was they do not want to increase the budget," she said. "Maybe people who get on the board in the future would not be interested in the students."
"At least in this model, the parents are voting, and they are familiar with what we are doing and are interested in the welfare of the students," she added. "I would rather hear from them than the 50 to 60 percent of people who have no idea who they are voting for and what the issues are for the district."
Bridgewater resident Howard Teichman said he is actually in favor of eliminating the budget vote from the elections, but is more concerned with the possible changing character of the board if this were to happen.
"There is the probability of changing the character of the board to one that is less concerned with education and less concerned about kids," he said.
Still, Teichman said, the new bill does provide another option.
"The council could make the decision and take the final say away from the voters," he said. "They would lose the opportunity to take the budget, but I think they would gladly get rid of that authority. The council would be a neutral party and would be able to allocate power as it sees fit."
"I think we should leave this up to the council," he added.
And resident Anne Buckley Johnson said she would support a decision that would remove the option of sending a failed budget to the council.
"I have experienced the cuts," she said. "I don't like putting this budget in the hands of the town council."
president, and high school teacher, Steve Beatty said it has to be all about the students, and he would support eliminating the budget vote.
"When I heard the possibility that we could guarantee a fiscally responsible budget and never have to worry about having the budget pass, I was ecstatic," he said. "If the board members are not doing a good job, they deserve to be voted out, and having this option available, you are telling students you care about them."
"It is about the kids, and that is what has to be the primary concern," he added.
The board of education is planning to continue discussion of the issue at the Feb. 14 meeting, and a final decision about whether to move the election will be made either then or at a special meeting Feb. 16 at 8 p.m. at the Wade Administration Building.