MILLBURN, NJ – Public outcry was loud during Monday night's Millburn Board of Education meeting when the board passed a resolution in a 6 to 3 vote to move school board elections to the first Tuesday November.
Board of Education President Michael Birnberg, Vice President Eric Siegel and board members Samuel Levy, Jeffrey Waters, Rona Wenik and Mark Zucker voted in favor of the resolution.
Board members Regina Truitt, Jean Pasternak and Lise Chapman, who also proposed a resolution to table the resolution until a further date, which was rejected by the board in a 6 to 9 vote, sided with the majority of the public’s opinion and voted to not move the school board election from the third Tuesday of April to the first Tuesday of November.
Millburn is one of many area school districts that voted to move the elections after a bill, signed by Gov. Chris Christie last month, gave individual districts the power to move their school board elections to November instead of April. This decision can either be made by the voters, the board of education or the township council.
If the election is moved, the public will also not get to vote on the district's budget if it are at or below the state-mandated 2 percent cap. In addition, the board of education may submit an amount in excess of the cap to the voters. Also, current board members that are in their final term will serve on the board until the January 2013 reorganization meeting. The election will remain in November for at least four years.
Those in support of this bill say that a November election would save districts the cost of having an April election, which costs Millburn about $30,000, and may lead to greater turnouts at the voter poll because it is around the same time that town-wide elections take place. It also eliminates the time and effort of the board to publicize the budget and persuade them to vote on it.
Opponents say the measure takes away the only opportunity the voters have to vote on their tax bills. Also, it gives the power of other parties to take away the authority of the school board in an unprecedented manner, among other things.
The issue was of hot debate with more than a dozen residents coming up during the public comments portion before the resolution was passed to speak on the issue. Many were proponents to not changing the election because of the fact that it will take the school budget vote out of resident’s hands.
“We need a right to vote on the budget to make sure that our money is being spent properly,” Millburn resident Jeff Diecidue said at the meeting. “We can’t just leave it to administrators and board members. I think we should have the right to vote how the money should be spent."
Resident Abby Kalan, who sat on the Millburn Board of Education several years ago, addressed comments from a few board members who said that moving the elections to November has been discussed in the town “for years” and that the public was kept in the loop on this.
Kalan said that the public not having the right to vote on a budget presented under the cap was never tied to moving the school board election; a point which was backed by many other speakers. She also reminded the board that the last time a school budget was defeated in the district was 1993.
“This is a terrible way to look at the budget process," Kalan said. "The vote belongs to us too. I have a lack of confidence in this group as a whole,” she said, receiving a loud round of applause from the public.
Another issue brought up in opposition to the passed resolution was that a few years from now the board of education may consist of a few, several or all different members who may not make responsible decisions on the budget.
Diecidue said that he has seen poor boards in the past that have created a budget that was “completely out of whack.” He also reminded the board and the public that the district has about $8.5 million in surplus because of poor budgeting practices by past boards.
Siegel, Levy and Zucker’s seats are up in January of 2013 in which time they have the option to be re-elected to the board.
“We don’t have any insurance that the next three board members will have the conviction of keeping the budget low, as the three of you do, and we don’t know what is going to happen in the future,” resident Josh Scharf, who also previously sat on the board, said.
One of the few residents who was in support of the resolution was Jay Mattlin. A candidate in the 2011 school board election, Mattlin expressed that he believed the resolution would not “take the right to vote away.”
He added that the public has the right to vote on board members who will make the best decisions on managing a responsible budget and keeping it under the mandated two percent cap.
Before the public expressed their concerns, several board members explained their side on the issue.
Board member Truitt said that she believed the public should have the final say, not the nine board members. She added that while moving the election to November will save the district $30,000, the “real cost” to the community may be greater than that.
Board member Chapman brought up the fact that the Princeton Board of Education recently voted down Christie’s bill because of its hypocrisy in not allowing residents to vote for the budget, but at the same time allowing them to have a say against the application of charter schools.
Supporting the resolution, board member Waters maintained that he feels everyone involved with the budget process will continue to work hard to keep the tax levy low. He said that the budget issue will still, in effect, be “taxation with representation” and that he sees no correlation between the budget vote and charter school applications.
Birnberg said that there was no right or wrong answer in this issue and the budget process will continue the way it is going now and won’t change with the elections moving. He stressed that board members should have more confidence in the public to identify and vote for proper board members in the midst of town wide elections going on.