According to The Record (May 29th), 15 North Jersey school budgets were defeated in April, and yet virtually no cuts have been made after town councils reviewed the budgets. Most councils reinstated the original school districts’ spending plans or cut the budgets by an insignificant amount. If a school budget is defeated, state law allows the town council to alter the budget or leave it intact. The school board then has the right to appeal to the state Department of Education.
Although voting on school budgets is supposed to be another exercise in local democracy, when a school budget is defeated, spending is rarely reduced by an appreciable amount. Town councils are, in most cases, rubber stamps for the school board. Thus, the illusion of democracy is perpetuated to satisfy homeowners that they have a voice in school spending. The reality is that only about 15% of taxpayers vote in the April school board elections, so the passage of school budgets can hardly be called a ringing endorsement of current school spending levels. On the other hand, homeowners may be satisfied with the level of school spending and figure the budget will pass and therefore their votes are unneeded to pass the budget.
If we continue the annual ritual of school budget votes in April, then taxpayers should be able to vote not on one but at least four budgets. One budget would have deep cuts in spending, a second one would have significant cuts, the third one would be the one the school board believes is absolutely necessary to provide a quality education to students, and the fourth one would provide an expansion of school programs and services and the hiring of more personnel.
Each budget would have its price tag and voters could choose which spending plan they want to pass. The budget that receives the highest number of votes would be enacted. In short, under this approach, taxpayers would control school spending.