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N.J. Voters Approve 73% of Local School Budgets

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Signaling that the tax revolt that has shaken state politics and school budgets may be ebbing, New Jersey voters have approved nearly three-quarters of their local school districts' spending plans for next year.

Of the 552 budgets presented to voters, 406, or 73.6 percent, passed this month--the highest rate of acceptance since 1987, according to the state education department.

The high passage rate contrasts sharply with the frequent public rejection of school budgets in recent years, largely in protest of steep tax hikes approved by Gov. James J. Florio and the legislature in 1990.

The approval rate for school budgets was only 51.9 percent in 1990 and 55.4 percent in 1991.

Though pleased with this month's outcome, education leaders stopped short of proclaiming the results as a full-fledged halt to the taxpayer revolt, which led to the routing of Mr. Florio's fellow Democrats in the legislature in last fall's elections and the installation of overwhelming Republican majorities in both chambers.

Looking Locally

Instead, educators suggested, taxpayers had differentiated between local school boards and state officials.

"This year's surprising budget election results show how voters, pressed by taxes and a recession, will still look objectively at the funding proposed for their own local public schools,'' said Robert E. Boose, the executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Mr. Boose attributed the results to the Governor's engineering this winter of a $341-million increase in state aid, which will be distributed largely to middle-income districts. The additional funds enabled districts to avoid proposing large property-tax increases, Mr. Boose said.

He also credited school boards for holding the line and local educators for becoming more adept at explaining their budgetary needs.

Another factor clearly was Mr. Florio's success in blocking a Republican effort to change the date for the elections. The legislature in February passed a bill to delay the voting from April 7 to April 28, in an apparent effort to gain time to redirect some of the Governor's proposed school-aid increase for tax cuts and other purposes. (See Education Week, April 8, 1992.)

Indicative of the increased approval rate were Bergen and Monmouth counties. Bergen's approval rate jumped from 33.8 percent last year to 61.6 percent this year, while Monmouth's shot up from 37 percent to 75.9 percent.

Not all districts came out winners, though. The Old Bridge Township school budget went down to its 21st consecutive defeat, and the county in which it is located, Middlesex, had a passage rate of just 50 percent.

The 30 urban special-needs districts targeted for increased state aid under the 1990 tax and finance-reform law fared poorly. Of 20 budgets put before voters, only 11 passed.

Districts have until mid-May to appeal their defeated budgets to the state education commissioner.

Voters also cast ballots for school-board members. The N.J.S.B.A. has not completed analyzing the data for those elections, but Frank Belluscio, the group's communications director, said there was no sign of a massive repudiation of incumbents.

Sales-Tax Rollback

Meanwhile, Republicans in the legislature have fulfilled their campaign pledge to roll back the sales tax from 7 percent to 6 percent.

Before signing or vetoing the measure, Governor Florio is awaiting a breakdown of possible cuts to compensate for the estimated $630 million in lost revenues. Under the state constitution, he has 45 days to act after passage of a bill.

Still smarting from the Governor's successful parliamentary maneuvers to use the 45-day provision to negate the school-election legislation, though, Republican lawmakers have decided to withhold their spending plans until sometime next month--after the deadline for acting on the sales-tax bill expires.

"It's not just a matter of identifying revenue for the sales-tax reduction,'' said Bob DeSando, a spokesman for Speaker of the House Garabed "Chuck'' Hayataian. The Speaker "intends to see the Governor's budget reduced by a billion [dollars].''

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