Local governing bodies in New Jersey will now weigh in on hundreds of school district budgets that voters rejected in Tuesday’s election.
Many of the spending proposals included property tax increases to generate more revenue for school systems. New Jersey has some of the highest property taxes in the country. State law prohibits property tax hikes of more than 4%.
Voters rejected 314 of 537 proposed school budgets, with only 41.3% of spending plans gaining approval, according to preliminary election results compiled by the New Jersey School Boards Association. Last year, residents approved 73.3% of school district budgets.
Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget decreases state aid to school districts by $820 million. He has urged school systems to cut spending and reduce staff, and has asked unions to accept wage freezes to help ease taxpayer bills.
Overall, Christie seeks to reduce municipal budgets by capping salary and benefit cost increases at 2.5% and rolling back a 9% increase in pension benefits. He would also place a $15,000 ceiling on sick-leave payouts.
At the same time, the Republican governor wants to lower the limit on property tax increases to 2.5% from the current 4% levy.
Critics of Christie’s cutbacks in school aid say that many school districts still need to increase property taxes even with workforce reductions and salary restrictions.
Voters Tuesday passed $38.2 million of borrowing for school construction out of a proposed $69.9 million of bonding, according to the NJSBA. Residents in four districts approved the financings and those in three districts did not. New Jersey has five elections per year in which voters can weigh in on school construction borrowing initiatives.
Local governments now have until May 19 to review and vote on spending plans for school districts that did not pass Tuesday’s election, according to association spokesman Mike Yaple. Local officials have the option to revise proposed budgets with additional spending cuts or other budget-balancing measures, or to leave the spending plan untouched before voting on the budgets.
“When voters reject a school budget, essentially what they’re calling for is another layer of review and that would be the municipal governing body,” Yaple said. “They review the budget and they may make cuts or they may leave the school budget intact. They’re not required to make cuts.”
School boards have the option to appeal a municipality’s changes to the school budget.
The NJSBA and the New Jersey League of Municipalities will host a statewide telephone conference at noon today to discuss how this affects local governments.
“Many school boards and municipal governments will be going through the review process for the first time,” NJSBA executive director Marie Bilik said in a statement. “It’s going to be a difficult job, since the budgets presented to voters already reflected layoffs, program cuts, and service reductions. That’s why communication and cooperation between municipalities and school districts will be crucial over the next few weeks.”
Prior to the election, the association asked schools how they are adjusting to the anticipated drop in state aid. Nearly 93% of the 323 districts that responded said they will lay off staff, and teaching positions will be affected in 85% of districts. The changes also include cuts in education programs and extracurricular activities. In addition, 83% of districts in the survey said the decline in aid will result in higher property taxes.
New Jersey voters typically have approved more than 50% of school district budgets. The last time the majority of budgets did not pass in an election was in 1976, when voters rejected 66% of them.