N.J. Voters Resoundingly Reject Property-Tax Hikes

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In a striking demonstration of public anger over the burden of property taxes, New Jersey voters have rejected almost half of all local efforts to raise taxes for the schools.

Ohio educators, meanwhile, say they expect voters in that state to reject a similar proportion of school budgets this week.

New Jersey voters late last month rejected 267 of 553 local school budgets up for approval. That 48 percent rate of failure is the highest since 1976, when 58 percent of local budgets were defeated. Last year, the rate of failure was 38 percent.

The mass rejection of local school budgets "is a strong signal from people who are fed up with New Jersey's growing overreliance on local property taxes to pay for education," said Gov. James J. Florio in a statement.

Most school budgets in New Jersey need voter approval, even if they do not involve a tax increase. Education department officials said, however, that almost all budgets this year called for a tax hike.

In Ohio, school budgets are on the ballot in 214 of the state's 612 districts.

"We'll get somewhere between 45 and 50 percent of the budgets approved," said Robert L. Moore, assistant superintendent for public instruction.

Last November was the most recent time so many school budgets were put to the voters, Mr. Moore noted, and only 112--46 percent--were approved at that time.

"I don't see anything on the horizon that will change that figure one way or the other," Mr. Moore said.

Antitax Scapegoat?

Mr. Moore attributed the defeats to one main factor: the public's distaste for taxes in any form, for any purpose.

"Voters just don't want taxes, period," he said. "Nobody does. It doesn't matter what they're for."

While agreeing with that observation, several New Jersey educators offered other explanations for the high number of defeats this year.

"The only budget that these people vote on is the school budget," said Frank Belluscio of the New Jersey School Boards Association. "Even if the budget calls for a small increase, or no increase, it becomes the scapegoat for antitax feeling."

Several others in the state agreed, and said New Jersey's budget shortfall, which could reach $3 billion, ex8acerbated the schools' problems.

To bridge the deficit, Mr. Florio has proposed about $2.5 billion in new taxes and has pared more than $1 billion in spending. For the upcoming year, the state has funded only 83 percent of its school-funding formula.

The formula has never been fully funded, but this year's allotment is the lowest since the state's equalized-funding system was adopted in the mid-1970's.

"When state aid declines, a greater proportion of [local] budgets have to include tax increases," said Seymour Weiss, director of the bureau of controversies and disputes for the state education department.

Budget Votes Debated

The string of defeats in New Jersey comes at a time when state policymakers are considering whether school districts should continue putting their budgets up for a public vote.

Most school boards would like to see the practice eliminated, according to Mr. Belluscio.

"So much of a school budget is predetermined anyway," he said.

Speaker of the Assembly Joseph V. Doria Jr. has sponsored a bill to allow school budgets to take effect without voter approval.

Only about 15 percent of eligible voters participate in the elections, said his spokesman, and even then their vote can be nullified by municipal officials or the state commissioner of education.

"When you get right down to it, they don't really mean that much," the spokesman said.

But some local school officials said they thought the votes were helpful.

In Cherry Hill, voters approved a 13 percent tax hike by a 20 percent margin. Because of cuts in state aid, the district lost about $5.4 million of its $83-million budget, said Superintendent Philip Esbrandt.

The campaign for the budget--which involved meetings and forums with parents, community leaders, and local businesses--helped bring the community together, Mr. Esbrandt observed.

"I think we involved the community in the schools," he said. "And we were successful."

Not the Last Word

As Mr. Doria's aide indicated, rejection by the voters is not the last word in districts' budget processes.

If a budget is turned down, a town's governing body can order the necessary cuts. But it can also override the electorate and approve the budget as it stands.

Even if the local governing body orders school officials to make cuts in the budget, they can still appeal to the state commissioner.

The commissioner is required by the state constitution to ensure that all districts provide students a "thorough and efficient" education. To do this, he may approve certain expenditures already rejected by voters and municipal officials, according to a department spokesman.

Vol. 09, Issue 33

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