Voters were in no mood to OK school projects

In the News • MARK ROSMAN

The phrase “the voters have spoken” certainly rang loud in New Jersey on Jan. 26. On that date, school districts around the state, including two school districts served by Greater Media Newspapers, put questions before the public and saw them soundly rejected.

I am quite certain that the nation’s and state’s current depressed economic situation was the driving factor that sent these requests for improvements down to defeat.

Quite simply, people in New Jersey do not want to pay — cannot afford to pay — any more money in property taxes. The school referendumquestions would have added to residents’ property tax bills.

In this economic climate it is difficult, if not impossible, to convince Garden State residents to pay one more dollar in property taxes. In some instances, of course, additional property taxes can be forced on property owners and there is nothing that can be done to object to those increases, except move.

However, there are some questions regarding spending that are put before the public, and in those instances people are saying, “No, we are not paying one more dollar.”

One could make the argument that in some ways this is exactly the time to pass a referendum and to undertake construction projects. Many companies are chomping at the bit to bid on contracts, and the employees of those companies — some of whom may now be unemployed or underemployed — want desperately to return to work.

Voting no to construction projects keeps unemployed and underemployed people unemployed and underemployed. Perhaps they, of all people, should be voting yes.

According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, voters in two of nine New Jersey school districts approved $10.35 million in school construction projects on Jan. 26. A total of $293.7 million was on the ballot.

In Edison, which is served by Greater Media Newspapers’ publication the Edison- Metuchen Sentinel, there were two questions on the ballot.

Question No. 1 proposed renovations to 13 schools. The total cost was $137,068,139. The amount eligible for state reimbursement was $34,678,611. That question was rejected by a vote of 4,987 to 2,460.

Question No. 2 proposed the construction of a new elementary school at a cost of $29,775,888. The amount eligible for state reimbursement was $4,796,563. Residents rejected that question in a 5,317 to 2,111 vote.

In Jackson, which is served by Greater Media Newspapers’ publication the Tri- Town News, there were four questions on the ballot.

Question No. 1 proposed the installation of solar panels at a high school. The total cost was $7,043,750. The amount eligible for state reimbursement was $5,311,575. Voters rejected the question 2,854 (no) to 2,294 (yes).

Question No. 2 proposed renovations to information technology and/or security systems in 10 Jackson schools. The total cost was $11,925,000. The amount eligible for state reimbursementwas $4,770,000. Voters rejected the question 3,033 (no) to 2,041 (yes).

Question No. 3 proposed replacing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at a high school. The total cost was $6,700,000. The amount eligible for state reimbursement was $2,680,000. Voters rejected the question 2,992 to 2,148.

Question No. 4 proposed the installation of an irrigation system at a high school athletic complex. The total cost was $3,790,230. The amount eligible for state reimbursement was $1,516,230. Voters rejected the question 3,835 to 1,274.

Around the state, voters rejected two proposals in Wood- Ridge, one proposal in Pennsauken Township, one proposal in the High Point Regional School District, one proposal in Knowlton Township, and one proposal in Washington Borough.

In Cumberland County, voters in the Cumberland Regional School District approved a proposal to replace a roof and install solar panels at a high school. In Sussex County, voters in Montague Township approved a proposal for a partial roof replacement and repairs at an elementary school.

As we head into the school budget season, these referendum results should serve as a warning bell for school board members and school district administrators to do everything they can to hold the line on spending during the 2010-11 school year.

New Jersey residents will be heading back to the polls April 20 to cast their ballots on proposed school budgets. It seems clear from the results of the Jan. 26 referendums that voters are in no mood to approve anything they perceive to be wasteful spending.

A school superintendent told me on Jan. 27 that he believes school districts will face, and their officials are planning for, a reduction in state aid for 2010-11.

Over the past few years administrators have been happy just to get the same state aid from one school year to the next. In some cases that flat funding turned out to be a reduction in aid when the state withheld promised payments.

My question for Gov. Chris Christie on the issue of state aid for schools is this: If you cut state aid to suburban school districts for 2010-11 and drive up our property taxes, will you also cut state aid to the New Jersey school districts that have the majority of their school expenses paid for with state aid (i.e., by the rest of us)?

I had no faith in Christie before he won the governor’s race that he would do right by suburban school districts. Here in the suburbs we are anxiously waiting to see who gets the short end of the school aid stick from the new administration in Trenton.

Mark Rosman is a managing editor with Greater Media Newspapers. He may be reached at gmntnews@gmnews.com.