A majority of Bernards Township members on Monday said they favor moving annual school elections to November—but would like to hear from the public at the scheduled Feb. 13 meeting before taking a final vote.
"I think it would be fair to give people an opportunity to talk about it," Board Member Elaine Kusel said. She said she views the only negative of the new school election options is that the change could take away the public's right to vote on the annual school budget.
The change is new, Kusel said. "I don't think we have to vote on it tonight," she said.
The as outlined in legislation signed last week by Gov. Chris Christie, would allow a school district to forgo putting its proposed budget on a public ballot—as long as the increase on the local tax levy stays within the 2 percent cap.
"We get hurt badly every time a budget goes down," said Board Member Audrey Cohen Sherwyn, who added that she agrees with Board Member Bill Koch that the cuts that follow a budget defeat hurt the school district for years to come.
A budget defeat also hurts the morale of students, faculty and parents, and especially those who volunteer to help support the budget passage, Cohen Sherwyn said.
While that board members elected in November's general election would need to wait until January to be seated—and losing or retiring members would remain as lame ducks—Cohen Sherwyn said she is not bothered by the gap of a few months. "We can use the gap to train people," she said.
Board Member Susan McGowan said she has reservations about taking away the public's right to vote on the school budgets.
McGowan said she would prefer to see the public's right to vote expanded for on more public budgets. "I think you would see a lot of meaningful cuts," she said.
While Board Member Michael Byrne said he supports the idea of a public forum on the proposal, he said he feels moving the vote on school board candidates to the general election in November would expand the pool of participating voters.
Board Member Priti Shah said she still is "on the fence" about the decision, although she noted that moving the election to November would leave the district the option of approving budgets with less than a two percent increase. If future boards feel the need to raise the budget above two percent, school officials could place that request on the November at that time, she said.
She said she doesn't see the hard of going along with the plan — as long as the school board doesn't become politicized at some point in the future.
Board member Robin McKeon said she feels the positive of moving the election outweigh the negatives, even though she said she has concerns about the disconnect of potentially voting in November on spending for a school fiscal year that begins July 1.
Carlsson said that, statewide, school boards would lock into the decision to move the school election date for four years if they approve the change.
She said 30 districts in the state already have made the decision to move the local school election to November.
Under the new state guidelines, a municipal governing body or a petition signed by 15 percent of local voters can also result in having the school election date moved.
Somerset Hills school district already approved move
The Somerset Hills Board of Education on Jan. 18 already approved moving the vote for school board members to November, and determined that district would follow the state's statutory restrictions of two percent increase on the tax levy for the sending districts to regional school district, Nancy Hunter, the Somerset Hills business administrator and board secretary, verified on Monday afternoon.
The regional school district assesses local school taxes in Bernardsville, Far Hills and Peapack-Gladstone, while students from Bedminster attend Bernards High School on a tuition-paying basis.
"The Somerset Hills Board of Education, consistent with the budgetary restrictions expressed above, believes that dispensing with annual school budget votes will save taxpayer dollars," according to the resolution approved by that board.
The resolution also said the Somerset Hills board's believes that school board member elections in November will attract a far greater number of voters than typically vote in April elections, and in general, is in the best interest of the Somerset Hills community.
The restrictions on the budget will begin with the 2012-13 school budget, according to the Somerset Hills resolution.