Voters in 479 of New Jersey’s school districts rejected 260 proposed budgets (54 percent), the most rejections in a single school-election season since 1976, when 56 percent of school budgets were defeated, according to The Star-Ledger (Newark). The budgets involved now go to the respective town councils for further action.
Governor Chris Christie had urged voters to reject budgets in districts in which the local teachers’ union refused to consider a one-year salary freeze–which means all but 17 districts. But in addition to the public war between the governor and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), this year’s school elections took place five days after the income-tax filing deadline (April 15), which is also the first anniversary of the Tea Party movement, most of whose members consider April 15 to be the anniversary date.
West Orange in Essex County was a case in point. Its property taxes are among the highest per $100,000 valuation, and the Board of Education proposed a school-tax levy increase of 7.3 percent, the highest of all districts in Essex County. Voters rejected that budget 3947 to 3176, and also bounced one incumbent Board member who had sought re-election. West Orange has seen a significant increase in citizen activism in the past year, and the activists have gotten advice from Tea Party members, including Ralph Franzese, Director of Operations for the Morristown Tea Party in neighboring Morris County. (Essex County does not have its own Tea Party organization–yet. Activists have built a Facebook page and announced a charter meeting that will take place on Tuesday, April 22, from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m., on the second floor of the Bloomfield Public Library. Bloomfield saw the approval of a 4 percent property-tax increase and of a separate $2.9 million expenditure to repair a playing field.)
West Orange was one of four districts whose voters rejected the budget; the others were Nutley, Fairfield and Cedar Grove. In Millburn, voters approved a budget calling for a 2 percent tax levy and the elimination of 31 jobs (chiefly by not replacing certain retirees), returned two incumbents to the Board who have reputations for concern about “the taxpayer’s money,” and also elected newcomer Rona Wenik, who made the opposite reputation at the candidates’ last public forum a week before the election.
Essex County saw more budget approvals than did most counties. In contrast, Somerset and Hunterdon Counties rejected nearly all their budgets, Morris County rejected nearly two-thirds, and Middlesex County rejected more than half. Only two counties saw no rejections of their school districts’ budgets.
The sizes of the property tax levies did not appear to make the difference between acceptance and rejection, or at least not in Essex County (except perhaps in the West Orange case, an obvious outlier). Rather, the relative level of Tea Party activity did. The counties approving most of their budgets had the weakest Tea Party organizations, or indeed no active organizations in the past year. But, as Essex County illustrates, that is already changing or about to change.
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