Board of education amends budget vote policy

by Brian Burns
In a special Feb. 9 meeting, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education voted to move school-board elections from April to the first Tuesday of November. This decision puts Scotch Plains-Fanwood alongside every other school district in Union County, whose boards voted to move their elections after Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill in January that set a procedure to make the change possible.
The legislators who sponsored the law cite benefits to districts that move the vote to the November general election day, including local cost savings and increased voter participation.  A consequence of the board’s eight-to-one vote is that the public will no longer be required to vote on the tax levy that supports the school budget unless it increases by more than two percent from the tax levy in the prior year.  Barring such circumstances, the Union County Office of the Department of Education will handle the approval of the budget.  The board’s decision will be in effect for the next four years.
Community members expressed some misgivings about the changes. According to the Board Bulletin’s report on the meeting, fears were voiced that the political atmosphere of November could create more heated tensions during elections, while some took issue with denying the public the right to vote on the school budget.
“Board members struggled with this piece of the legislation, as we feel removing a vote is a serious issue and deserved much discussion. We ultimately came to the conclusion that since our budget is reviewed by the state department of education through our county office, the voters could be assured that our budgets would be proper and not extravagant,” said Norman ‘Trip’ Whitehouse, board president.
The change will save the school district an estimated $35,000 in election costs and could increase voter participation in board elections.
“Historically within our two communities, BOE elections saw a participation rate of about 18 percent compared to approximately 44 percent in the November elections,” said Whitehouse, who believes that students and parents will see no negative effect on the educational program as a result of the change.