West Milford school board elections will remain in April

| 22 Feb 2012 | 06:08

WEST MILFORD — Move the school board elections to November or keep them in April? West Milford will keep its school board elections in April. After hearing input from the public, the board of education voted 7-2 not to move its elections to November. Trustees John Aiello, Matt Conlon, Jim Foody, Wayne Gottlieb, Donna Richards, Marilyn Schultz and board President Dave Richards all voted not to move the election; trustees Greg Bailey and Barbara Carter voted yes.

The bill The bill, signed in January by Governor Chris Christie, gave the option for New Jersey school districts to move school board elections from the spring to November, incorporated with political elections. The intent of the bill is to increase voter participation in school board elections and potentially save money on election costs. It would also eliminate the public vote on budgets that are at or below the state mandated 2 percent cap; the public would only vote on the budget if it exceeded the 2 percent cap or if there was a separate question to exceed the 2 percent tax levy. Districts choosing to make the change are required to keep the election in November for four years. The decision to change the April elections to November can be decided by board of education referendum, town council referendum, or a process by petition of 15 percent of the registered voting public via a referendum.

Board discussions and the public comments

The question was brought up in two previous public meetings. The first came by a citizen’s comment on the legislation that was pending at the time at the December meeting, and resulted in an unofficial poll of the school board members present at the time. The unofficial poll revealed that the majority of trustees present were not in favor of changing the elections to November. The second discussion came about when the item was presented on the January agenda for a vote. After discussion, the board voted instead to table the item until the Feb. 14 workshop to allow for the public to comment on the option. And comment they did.

Hewitt resident Lori-Elena Grant voiced her opposition to moving the election to November. She said her primary concerns are, “my right to vote, giving school board issues the attention they deserve, and having a quality vote cast by an informed voter.”

Resident Doris Aaronson said that keeping the elections in April is more beneficial to the township since there are more opportunities to meet and get to know the candidates, what they stand for and their philosophy of education. She also mentioned the additional political signs that would be placed around the township in November if the election was moved.

“I think having a larger quantity of voters that don’t know what they’re voting for is not going to help our school system,” said Aaronson.

Resident Gary Steele is in favor of keeping the election in April.

“It just makes sense from a political point of view if you want to maintain credibility as a school board that you throw it out to the voters and the voters get to vote," said Steele. "If you take it away from the voters, then, you know, there starts to be those questions as to what are you hiding.” Steele also commented that statistically more people voted in the school board election last year than for council members, so voter turnout should not be a concern for the West Milford school district.

Students weigh in West Milford High School teacher Greg Matlosz accompanied a group of students from his Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics class who wished to speak about the possible changes to the election date. The junior and senior students provided arguments for both sides of the vote. The students echoed some of the concerns previously voiced by the board trustees in their discussions, citing increased voter participation and a guaranteed school budget passage for pros of moving the elections to November; and the public’s loss of the ability to vote on the tax levy if the school budget is under the 2 percent cap and concerns for partisan involvement as cons.

Junior Matthew Katsuras is in favor of keeping the board elections in April.

“The separate elections for the school budget and the board of education and the elections for the town administration are just that - separate," said Matthew. "The November election's purpose is to determine representatives in the town government, and the April elections purpose is to guarantee or deny you board members a new term of office. The purposes are different, so the electorates are also different. West Milford has many fine citizens but alas, not all of them have children in the public school system. This group of the West Milford population usually only votes in the November election because the issues concern them more directly. If this general electorate were forced into the board and the budget questions, all conventional wisdom points to the undesirable result of less budgets passing and board members getting elected who have no business being here. This choice to merge the elections is not forward thinking and would have a slew of undesirable consequences that would not be in the best interests of this board or the township as a whole.”

Senior Michelle Teklits is in favor of moving the election to November, opting for a guarantee on a passed budget to fund educational programs.

“The elections have a 13 percent voter turnout in the town of West Milford, which is well above the state average. In the past few years, the budget has not been passed. This is due to the fact that a good portion of West Milford citizens who vote in April mostly care about an increase in their taxes," said Michelle. "Regardless of whether or not the district’s budget passes, their taxes are going to increase. Having witnessed the decline in academic programs and too many commendable teachers and faculty members being let go due to the budget not passing, I feel that it is necessary to move the district election date from April to an election day in November; not only for a large voter turnout, but for the future of the district and our country. Our students’ education should not be a sacrifice for a desired decrease in taxes.”