Daily Archives: April 21, 2010

Patrick Murray: Interpreting the School Budget Vote

posted by Patrick Murray on his Real Numbers and Other Musings blog

Yesterday, New Jersey voters did something they haven’t done in more than 30 years: defeated a majority of school district tax levies. [Note: I’m calling them “levies” here because that is more accurate. Voters don’t really have a say on the spending portion of the operational budgets of their local schools. They only get to vote on the amount in property taxes that the district proposes levying for the year.]

They also turned out in record numbers. The final statewide vote count hasn’t been compiled, but it is somewhere north of 20% of all registered voters. That may not sound like much, but the previous high for school elections, going back to at least 1976, was 18.6%. 1976 was also the last time a majority of school levies failed. That year, 56% went down. This year, it looks like 59% have been tossed out by voters.

A Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll released last week found that 29% of registered voters – if they did vote – would support their local school levies, while 37% would oppose them. Based on a sampling of county returns, it looks like that 8 point margin may hold up in the final statewide vote.

There are some other interesting findings as well. Taking Middlesex County as just one example, compared to the April 2009 election, turnout in this one county was up by 65%. The number of “No” votes went up by 90%. But the number of “Yes” votes also went up, albeit by a lower 40%. In other words, turnout increased on both sides of the issue.

So what does this all mean?

Chris Christie and his supporters have claimed victory, saying that New Jersey voters sided with the governor in his battle with the state teacher’s union, the NJEA. However, the governor urged voters to defeat budgets in districts where the teachers made no concessions – and a good number of these actually passed. On the flip side, in the few districts where teachers actually agreed to wage freezes or other concessions – the districts one would expect to be rewarded if voters were out to show support for the governor – a good number (anywhere between 6 and 13 depending on what you count as a “concession”) of the school budget levies failed.

The NJEA claims that the school vote was a repudiation of the governor’s draconian cuts in school aid which forced school boards to raise property taxes in order to maintain needed programs and services. Maybe, but polls also indicate that the public expected teachers to be willing to take pay freezes and pay for their benefits.

Local school boards say the vote was the product of a rush to make drastic cuts in a short time frame with few available tools to lessen the pain for both the educational system and the taxpayers. They may be partially right, but polls consistently show that voters believe there is a whole lot of waste in school spending to begin with.

So, here’s what we know about the New Jersey public:
1. They think the size of the cuts in state aid to local schools is unfair.
2. They think the teachers’ unions should be willing to come to the table and agree to a wage freeze and benefit contributions.
3. They don’t want educational programs cut.
4. They don’t want their property taxes raised.

All of these are reasons why Garden State voters voted yesterday. They are the reasons why more people than usual turned out to vote “No.” And they are also the reasons why more people than usual turned out to vote “Yes.”

Anyone who claims with certainty that any of these reasons is the main factor behind a majority of school levies going down yesterday is just blowing smoke….

Read more >>>Here

Patrick Murray is the founding director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and is a frequent media commentator on politics and public opinion,

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Filed under budget cuts, Gov. Chris Christie, Monmouth University / Gannett New Jersey poll, Patrick Murray, school budgets

With The School Budget Defeated what’s In Store for Middletown?

The voters have spoken and the words that they spoke yesterday all started with the word “NO”; “No” to the school budget, “No” to the incumbents, “No” to the teachers, “No” to higher taxes and “No” to the kids of Middletown.

So now with “No” being the word of the day, what’s in store for Middletown after the dust settles and reality sinks in?

With residents voting “No” on the school budget, the school budget will be sent to the Township Committee for review. The Committee will look it over and decide if there is anything left within the bare bones $140M budget to cut. Without a clear idea of where to make specific cuts, they will in my opinion, make a token gesture at cutting a few hundred thousand dollars from the budget and insist that the Board of Education eliminate excess administrators from its staff, thereby seemingly to save after school and extracurricular activities.

By voting out all the current incumbents, Pat Walsh, Dawn Diorio and Leonora Caminiti from the Middletown Board of Education, residents have lost strong and experienced voices that always had the best interests of the students first and foremost in their minds while making policy decisions.

In their place you will have 3 unproven individuals in Vincent Brand (who has never attended a Board of Education meeting in his life), Michael Mascone (President of Middletown Soccer League, who wants to open up the turf fields at the high schools to his soccer kids) and Chris Aveta (who as a member of the Carteret BOE became a caustic member of that board and became known for his confrontational incidents with teachers and administrators while serving just 1 term). All three, despite their denials to the contrary, were recruited by and sponsored by the members of the Middletown GOP in order to gain influence over the school board.

I can only hope that Brand and Mascone were being sincere when they told me at the April 16th BOE Candidate Forum that they would be their own men and not succumb to pressure from GOP members on the Township Committee who they barely know.

Those that voted “No” on the school budget fell for the caustic anti-teacher, anti-tax rhetoric touted by Governor Christie in his battle with the teachers union. Christie couldn’t legally break contracts that Governor Corzine negotiated with state labor unions, so he attempted to have local municipalities circumvent the collective bargaining process for him by taking local school board surpluses and cutting state school aid, forcing Middletown and other districts throughout the state to announce massive layoffs of teachers and support staff. All of which Governor Christie said could be avoided it teachers agreed to a one year wage freeze and contribute more to their health and pension benefits as a way to control property taxes.

Unfortunately the governor wasn’t being honest with people in Middletown; Christie took $11M away from the school system. That type of funding cut could never have been made up with wage and benefit concessions from teachers alone. Layoffs, cuts to student services and a tax increase were going to be needed regardless of whether or not the Middletown teachers agreed to open and renegotiated their labor contract. By rejecting this budget there will be no significant impacted on the amount of property taxes that Middletown residents pay.

Finally, how will the rejection of the school budget affect the children of Middletown? That will ultimately depend on the Township Committee and how many additional cuts they chose to make to it.

Further cuts to the budget could mean that sports programs and extracurricular activities are eliminated, an increase to class size and maybe in a worst case scenario redistricting of the school system by closing 1 or more schools.

But before making further cuts to the budget the Township Committee should keep in mind that many students rely on extracurricular activities for college entry. Admissions officers at colleges look for “well-rounded student”, who not only get excellent grades, but who also play sports, perform in the band, join clubs and/or work a job.

Rejection of the school budget does have consequences that a majority of voters may not have realized at the time of their vote. I hope that their short sightedness and temporary anger at the teachers for not accepting a wage freeze does not have an adverse affect on the kids of Middletown, who on the contrary to what Governor Christie said about the teacher throughout the state using them as pawns in their fight against him, it is in fact Christie who has used the students as pawns against the teachers union.

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Filed under budget cuts, Gov. Chris Christie, Middletown Board of Education