The date was April 15, not one that would have been New Jersey school officials’ top choice for holding their first budget elections under the state’s much-debated new funding law.
“Everybody initially thought it was a plot,” said John J. Battles, the superintendent of the Randolph school district in Morris County. “Having it on tax day was considered to be a very, very bad omen.”
But despite its inauspicious timing, last week’s election turned out better than many Garden State educators feared. Voters approved 76 percent of the roughly 550 budgets on the ballot statewide, well above last year’s two-thirds passing rate and the best showing since 1986.
Moreover, many voters showed they were willing to spend more than the state deemed necessary under tight new budget caps, to preserve such programs as full-day kindergarten, advanced-placement classes, and extracurricular offerings ranging from band to basketball.
School officials and parents had been especially nervous about those programs, thanks to a new wrinkle in their annual budget drama introduced by the funding law enacted late last year. (“N.J. Finance Law Ties Funding and Standards,” Jan. 15, 1997.)
The new formula, which ties spending to statewide curriculum standards, capped local spending growth at 3 percent. To exceed that, districts had to place separate questions on the ballot, specifying how the money would be used. Only programs not seen by the state as needed to meet the standards could be included on those questions.
Statewide, 144 districts put a total of 176 extra questions before voters, some for spending in the seven figures. As it turned out, two-thirds of those questions passed.
State officials hailed the outcome as proof that their critics were wrong.
“The sky did not fall as the doomsayers predicted,” Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, said in a statement. “The results indicate that the process worked exactly as it was supposed to.”
Not everyone, however, was so enchanted. In the Hopewell Valley Regional district, where voters rejected both the base budget and a separate question for $675,000, Superintendent David N. Thomas had no kind words for the governor. To suppress property taxes in a gubernatorial-election year, he said, the Whitman administration tried to force schools to make harmful spending cuts.
“They just don’t understand the value that people in New Jersey put on their small community schools,” said Mr. Thomas, whose three-town district south of Princeton serves 3,200 students.
Like other officials with defeated budgets, Mr. Thomas was hoping that municipal authorities would rescue his $32 million spending plan. Under the funding law, local municipal councils have the power to adjust defeated budgets and the final say on whether to override the voters’ verdict on the separate spending questions.
Spending Gap At Issue
The hard-fought new funding law came in response to a 1994 state supreme court ruling that ordered the state to close the spending gap between rich and poor school systems by this year.
State officials acknowledge that the law will not do that. Instead, they have sought to get the state off the hook by labeling any spending beyond what they say is needed to meet standards as the product of strictly local decisions.
Urban school advocates don’t buy that approach, and have asked the high court to overturn the law.
Jim Murphy, the executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said the elections may influence the court. The tendency of wealthier districts to preserve their programs may be seen by the justices as evidence that the spending gap will never close under the law, he said.
But such speculations were far from the minds of the relieved educators whose budgets survived at the polls.
In Randolph, Mr. Battles said the passage of three extra ballot questions will allow the 4,500-student district to hire teachers, buy a bus, and replace the 47-year-old roof on one school.
And in Haddon Heights, a 1,700-student district in Camden County, the passage of a $555,000 special question will preserve music classes, sports teams, the high school’s yearbook and musical, and other programs and jobs.
“There was a lot in there and for that to be cut, the district would have been devastated,” said Mark J. Stratton, the district’s business administrator. “We’re on cloud nine.”