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Sunday, July 14, 2024

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Compass Points 4.12.2006

By Al Campbell

Are elections about choice or vengeance?
 If we believe the pundits, not always a good thing to do, they are a rolling barometer of voters’ sentiments, which usually translates into being spiteful.
 Mid-term elections are alleged to show how the people, that scant percent who take time to vote, feel about their president, governor and sense of well being.
 April 18 is voting day. It’s a bad time for school board elections in the middle of Easter or spring break from public schools when many are vacationing.
 Ill timing aside, those who desire to vote in this important election will find a way, in person or by absentee ballot, to let their sentiments be counted.
 The dichotomy of school districts and how their budgets are approved is something I experience covering Middle Township Board of Education and the county Technical School District.
 There are some similarities and wide differences between both districts.
 While both are public, Middle Township, like peer groups around the state, must present its budget to the public and hope, sweat and pray the voters are in a happy mood when they enter the voting booth.
 The Technical School District, whose members are appointed by freeholders, alternatively, take an “express route” to budget passage.
 Locally, there are two boards of school estimate, one each for the Technical School and Special Services School districts. They include board of education members and freeholders. The superintendent appears before freeholders, and explains the district’s goals and aspirations. In about 10 minutes, there is an affirmative vote 99.9 percent of the time.
 A yes vote to public school boards, elected by the people, is more important than many can imagine.
 That’s because public school budgets are pieced together to support almost unattainable goals whose standards are set ever higher by legislators, pandering to the electorate’s desire to squeeze higher test scores (forget education) out of kids.
 A no vote is like being cast into debtor’s prison, never to get out. The tedious process of voter-rejected budget trimming includes the local municipal government and, if needed, an arduous journey to Trenton to convince the commissioner of education the money’s really needed to support “thorough and efficient” education.
 Public school board members look at their county-appointed peers with a certain degree of envy.
 While they, too, do their part to craft a budget, members of the board of school estimate have no angst wondering what the voters will do to the budget.
 Keep in mind that school budgets are one of only two public budgets that voters are given the opportunity to approve or reject. Fire district budgets are the other.
 It doesn’t happen with a municipal budget. It doesn’t happen with a county budget. It certainly doesn’t happen with the state budget.
 So what are voters to do?
 Everybody hates the thought of a tax increase. They’re mad, and they can’t take it anymore. So what happens?
 They take their anger out on the school budget.
 Fortunately, say Middle Township board members, the district’s voters have been supportive of the school budgets in the last few elections.
 Will that continue this year as the district proposes an eight-cent tax increase to support education? Superintendent Michael Kopakowski and the board certainly hope so.
 The dozen or so who attended the district’s budget hearing March 30, when the  budget was approved, heard the superintendent tell of four years of flat state funding.
 Place that in the perspective of the district, two years ago, being designated a “District in Need of Improvement.” Its status is on hold, because scores have improved, but wouldn’t it be logical to expect the state to kick in more money to help the district, struggling to help its pupils make the grade?
 A joke among school board members, statewide, is that the state was tasked by the courts to provide all New Jersey children with a “thorough and efficient” education. Lofty goal, yes, backed by no money to implement the mandate.
 The decision is left to taxpayers. If they’ve visited a school, and seen what wonders are accomplished daily, they’d approve the budget, and maybe kick in a little extra besides. If they had a bad day before voting, look out, schools.
 Don’t ask how fair it is to make local districts pitch voters; hat in hand, while a county district gets a virtual free pass on its budget.
 That’s not the way things run in the Garden State.

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