New Jerseyans Reject Near Record Number of Local School Budgets
New Jersey residents defeated more than one out of three local school budgets this month, a development that education groups say could force long-overdue action on tax reform.
In elections held across the state April 6, voters rejected proposed budgets in 210 of 553 school districts. All of the budgets called for higher property taxes.
State education officials said it was the worst approval rate since 1975, when 58 percent of all local spending plans were rejected.
The elections that year took place amid legislative wrangling over tax reform that was being forced by a state supreme court ruling that declared New Jersey's school-finance system unconstitutional. After prolonged debate and a court-ordered shutdown of schools statewide, law4makers in 1976 approved the current tax and school-aid systems.
Meanwhile, a legal challenge to the existing aid system reached a key stage last week, as the state board of education voted to uphold Commissioner of Education Saul A. Cooperman's rejection of an administrative-law judge's finding that state courts would probably vote to strike down the system.
The board's action marked the final step in administrative proceedings in the case, Abbott v. Burke. Lawyers for the 20 students named as plaintiffs in the suit must file their appeal of the board's ruling with the appellate division of the state superior court this week.
Vote of No Confidence
New Jersey education groups said the rejection of local school budgets this month reflected voter displeasure with the state's unwillingness to fully fund the state-aid formula, which in turn has forced districts to raise their property taxes to the point where they are among the highest in the nation.
"Without full state funding, school boards have to go back to local taxpayers for more funds--and that means property-tax increases," Dennis Giordano, president of the New Jersey Education Association, said last week.
"Many citizens are taking out their frustrations by voting against badly needed education dollars in the school-budget elections," he added, "partly because property taxes are highest where people are least able to pay them."
According to Joe Flannery, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, the rejection of the districts' budgets may be "the straw that breaks the camel's back on the tax-reform issue."
Due to an unanticipated revenue shortfall, Gov. Thomas H. Kean has proposed a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that would provide districts with $234.5 million less than the $3.8 billion they are entitled to under the state-aid formula.
This month, representatives of the state's major education groups held a rally in Trenton to support a Senate-passed bill that would add $98 million to the Governor's budget request. The bill's sponsors said the extra funds would be raised through new taxes on liquor sales and plastic bottles, and savings that would result from a state takeover of local courts and welfare programs.
'Only Game in Town'
Although the proposal would fall about $140 million short of the full-funding level, educators think it may be "the only game in town," Mr. Flannery said.
Assembly Speaker Chuck Hardwick, however, has blocked the bill in the legislature's lower chamber. He has expressed support for a measure passed by the Assembly in February that would fully fund the state-aid formula. That bill is opposed by Mr. Kean, who has pointed out that it does not specify how the additional revenues will be raised.
School administrators in districts whose budgets were rejected by voters must submit new spending plans to their local boards by April 28.
If the boards determine that the plans would fail to meet the state constitutional mandate for a "thorough and efficient" education, they can appeal to Mr. Cooperman, who is empowered to order local tax increases.
Thirty-two districts filed such appeals with the education commissioner last year, according to a spokesman for the education department's office of financial management services.