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After Bitter Fight, N.J. Voters; Reject 44% of School Budgets

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New Jersey voters late last month rejected 44 percent of the state's 556 school budgets up for a vote.

But that percentage was far better than the 70 percent rejection rate that some educators had predicted. It was even below the 48 percent rejected a year ago, thus reversing five years of increases in the number of school budgets turned down.

Relieved that a budget bloodbath had been averted, the New Jersey Education Association declared "a major victory for the state's schools and children."

Prior to the election, President of the Senate John A. Lynch and Senator Daniel J. Dalton, the Senate majority leader, had exhorted taxpayers to take a close look at proposed budgets and hold districts accountable for tax money.

The senators earlier this year had led the drive to pare down last summer's $1.1-billion school-finance plan in order to make more money available for property-tax relief. In March, they succeeded in passing legislation siphoning off $350 million from education funding and imposing spending caps that would channel still more monies from education to tax relief.

When Gov. James J. Florio began stumping for "accountability" in the days before the election, educators were further enraged.

"I was absolutely appalled that the Governor was irresponsible enough to climb onto the bandwagon and all but say, 'Vote down the budgets,"' Betty Kraemer, president of the njea, said last week.

Educators charged that New Jersey politicians were trying to deflect onto local school officials the voter anger that is still simmering over last summer's $2.8-billion tax hike.

Robert E. Boose, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, issued a statement commending "the people of New Jersey for cutting through the political rhetoric ... and for making their own assessments of the proposed school budgets."

Even so, northern New Jersey was hit hard by voter rejections in a wide range of districts that included affluent and working-class areas and cities and suburbs. Seven of eight budgets were rejected in Mercer County, for example, while 49 of 74 budgets in Bergen County were turned down.

Under state law, rejected budgets must be turned over to municipal authorities, who have the power to recommend, but not order, cuts in education programs and spending. Disputes between municipal and district officials are mediated by the state education department.--jw

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