Fiscal Troubles Have More People Running For N.J. School Boards

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Val Boyarsky had always kept a close eye on his children's education.

But since deciding to run for the school board this year, the Cherry Hill resident has increased his efforts, spending his nights analyzing school budget documents and peppering his teenage children with questions about their classrooms and teachers.

"As they're getting older, the information coming back from them is more coherent and interesting," said Boyarsky, 50, who co-owns a small technology company. "A lot of information is available on the Web, but it's not as detailed as I would like to see."

Boyarsky is part of a larger-than-usual number of New Jersey residents running for school boards this year, in what observers say is a reaction to the debate over Gov. Christie's 2010 cuts to education funding, which forced school districts to take actions from laying off teachers to charging students to play varsity soccer.

"Many parents and residents want to be part of that discussion," said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. "They realize the very hard decisions that are taking place in school districts."

This year, more candidates are running per open seat than any other year since 2006, the association says. The number of candidates rose from 2,055 last year to 2,222 this year, according to the school board association. About 1,612 seats must be filled.

That get-involved attitude has taken root in Cherry Hill, which had not seen a contested school board election since 2008, said Seth Klukoff, president of the township's school board.

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Nine candidates are running for four open seats on the nine-member board, and the discussion ahead of Wednesday's election is focused squarely on the school district's financial outlook.

Part of the surge of school building in New Jersey in the 1950s and 1960s, Cherry Hill's schools are now rife with leaky roofs and old pipes.

The district recently replaced the boiler at Cherry Hill East High School, and the school board must decide whether to keep fixing the aged schools or build new ones.

"All signs are pointing to the need to do something, and the board will be charged with determining how we address this," Klukoff said.

But the cost is likely to be high, and the newcomers opposing incumbents such as Klukoff are charging that the current school board is unwilling to make necessary cuts to keep the district solvent in the long term.

The school district cut the tax levy by $500,000 this year, less than half of 1 percent. But spending increased, and those now challenging incumbents say that needs to change.

"From the calculations we have come up with, if the district continues to spend the way they are, the future doesn't look very bright," said candidate Ryan Green.

Teacher layoffs and cuts in extracurricular programs appear unlikely to end soon. A recent survey of school districts showed that 75 percent plan to lay off instructional staff next school year, according to the school boards association.

That's a bad sign, Belluscio said.

"When you make a choice to cut teachers, you've exhausted a lot of other options," he said.

For now, the Cherry Hill board hopes to avoid more teacher layoffs by working at making programs more cost-efficient, Klukoff said. For instance, the district has started instructing more special education students in the district instead of sending them to outside schools.

Such measures are not placating the board's critics.

"They try to do a better job, but it's not aggressive enough," Boyarsky said. "I feel the rigidity and the structure needs to be addressed, and to do that, I need to be on the board."

Vol. 30, Issue 30

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