Last week nearly 80% of school district budgets passed voters’ scrutiny, the highest percentage in years. Contrast that with last year’s passage rate of 41% which, according to NJ School Boards Association, was the lowest rate since 1976.
What’s changed? Just about everything. In the pre-recession world, districts simply raised taxes to support increased salaries, benefits, small class sizes, extra administrators. Superintendents’ salaries marched upward. Teacher union contracts were settled at annual 4% increases in salaries, sometimes higher.
Suddenly there’s a new austerity, a genuine cultural shift among school boards. We’re reexamining third rail items like courtesy busing, small class size, extra administrators, fees for extra-curricular activities, summer schools. And the public knows it.
That pesky 2% cap on tax increases, once a soft 4%, functions as a checks and balances among boards and raises the comfort level of the voters. (Of 14 districts that developed budgets above that cap this year, 12 went down in flames.) And it’s no coincidence that collective bargaining agreements with local teacher unions were averaging about 4-4.5% in annual salary increases under the 4% cap. Now those agreements those have trended downward to a bit over 2%,
The next logical step in this shift is to eliminate school board budget votes for districts that comply with caps. The 2% ceiling protects voters and counters any remnants of school board profligacy. We’ll save money by eliminating the costly process of an election in every one of our 591 districts, not to mention the considerable distraction from educational duties engendered in the marketing of district budgets.