A measure passed by state lawmakers in the waning hours of the 214th Legislature could move Verona school board elections to November from April and eliminate a public vote on the school budget altogether.
“We could be in for a drastic change in the way the budget is presented to the public,” said Board of Education member Joseph Bellino at the BOE meeting Tuesday night.
Verona is a so-called Type 2 school district, which means that we have had a school budget established by an elected school board and approved through a public vote. Turnout for those elections has been dismal for many years. Last April, fewer than 1,300 of Verona’s registered voters turned out, approving the budget by a vote of 724 to 543.
Senate bill 3148 (and the corresponding bill 4394 in Assembly) establish a way for school districts, their towns and even voters themselves to move the annual school election to November and to do away with a public vote on their school budgets unless that budget needs to go above the state-mandated 2% cap on expenditures. If signed by Gov. Chris Christie, who has until January 17 to do so, the law would take effect immediately. Both Bellino and BOE President John Quattrocchi are up for reelection this April.
“It came up quickly, and moved through legislature extremely quickly,” said Bellino of the bill. (So fast that the text of the bill is not even available on the state legislature’s Web site.)
The BOE stressed that the school budget would still be presented and discussed in its regular public sessions. It is, as of now, up in the air whether the Board will again convene a citizens budget review group.
Beyond the new legislation, there was considerable discussion of budgetary issues at the Tuesday night meeting. Glenn Elliott, who serves on the Board’s buildings and grounds committee, said school Facilities Director Paul McDevitt had identified $152,000 in needed spending and asked the Board to fund it out of the district’s capital reserve. That did not appear to sit well with Bellino, who noted that such spending would be 95% of the monies now in capital reserve. By the end of the meeting, the BOE seemed in agreement to shrink spending on repairs to $62,000 and put through the necessary resolution at a future meeting.
But Bellino and Elliott again raised a prospect that has surfaced at several previous BOE meetings: That the Board may seek a referendum on a spending bond. The last such referendum, eight years ago, was for $32 million, which covered the expansions at H.B. Whitehorne Middle School and Laning Avenue Elementary School and other projects. The Board did not specify how big a referendum would be this time, but Elliott said that, “it won’t be anything of that magnitude.”