Less than 2,000 voters determined the fate of the Secaucus school budget, which was voted down after a near tie: 944 to 943. The town was one of seven municipalities in New Jersey to reject their school budget. Voters approved 63 of the 70 proposed school budgets on the April ballot, according to the New Jersey School boards association. Voters in Weehawken, North Bergen, and Jersey City all approved their budgets.
While the outcome goes against trends statewide, it is not uncommon to Secaucus.
“This is not the first time this happens,” said Board Trustee Jack McStowe. He did not seem surprised by the outcome and said that a rejection of the budget is common during small-town elections like the ones held in Secaucus. Last year’s budget was also rejected, but by a wide margin.
Faint hope for a couple of votes
On April 17, end-of-night election returns indicated that the budget had failed by two votes once absentee ballots were counted. But school officials held out for the possibility that a few more yes votes could be in the mix. They called for a review on April 24. The school budget still failed to pass, this time by just one vote, according to Michael Harper, Hudson County Board of Elections clerk. He conducted a visual audit of absentee and provisional votes. The tally included a provisional vote that had originally been declared a no vote on the budget.
“I hope they do the right thing.” – Lisa Snedeker
Reaction to taxes or toxic campaign?
The total operating school budget proposed for the 2012-2013 school year was almost $35 million. The budget included an increase of $620,320, which is within the state’s 2 percent cap, and equates to average increase of $74 per household in school taxes. School taxes represent just one portion of a tax bill, which also includes municipal and county taxes. While taxpayers will not see a municipal tax increase, some may have been hesitant about seeing any additional increase at all.
Board trustee Lisa Snedeker, who was shocked the budget did not pass, said that some people may have rejected the budget out of a fear of seeing taxes go up and out of uncertainty about how much taxes would increase year after year.
“When you see your taxes are going up everyone gets scared,” said Snedeker.
“Everybody is disappointed,” said Manente. He said that he felt the rejection of the budget could have been a result of the negative ad campaign that the mayor waged against school board candidate and incumbent Thomas Troyer, who lost his seat on April 17 after fifteen nonconsecutive years as a board trustee. Four candidates ran for three available seats to serve out a three-year term.
Troyer’s chance of winning was reduced after Gonnelli waged a public campaign against him with newspaper ads and flyers paid for by Take Back Secaucus.
“When the machine comes out against you, you are not going to beat them,” said Troyer in an interview after the election. “My whole goal was to keep politics out of education.”
The battle between Troyer and Gonnelli dates back to issues related to the failed budget from last year that went to the Mayor and Council for cuts. Gonnelli chose to attack Troyer for statements he made indicating that $850,000 was included in the budget as a “cushion” and Troyer has accused Gonnelli of cutting too deeply into last year’s budget.
April versus November election
Keeping politics out of education was a reason many said it was important to have the school board elections in April versus moving them to November. Gov. Christopher Christie signed legislation that allowed school districts to move their elections. The measure was seen as a cost saving to municipalities and as a way to garner more votes from increased voter turnout. While the majority of school districts statewide, 463 compared to 73, chose to hold their school elections in November, the local school board voted in February to keep the election in April.
“Board elections should be geared towards the children and politics should be kept out of it,” said Gonnelli earlier this year. He supported keeping the election in April.
McStowe noted that if the election had been moved to November the budget wouldn’t have required a vote since it was within the 2 percent cap set by the governor.
The school administration presented the budget to the mayor and Town Council, created a detailed video presentation, and also presented the budget at a school board meeting.
McStowe said that there were few questions that came up during the presentation.
“It was a good budget,” said McStowe.
While newly-elected board trustee Robert Anderson said he voted in favor of the budget he criticized it before the election and said during an interview, “the paperwork is all faulty.” As former union president Anderson led a vote of ‘no confidence’ among teachers in the leadership of Superintendent of Schools Cynthia Randina earlier this year citing a lack of trust, the second such effort in two years.
He blamed the superintendent for having “the tendency to not tell the truth.” Randina did not return The Reporter’s calls for comment by press time.
“I still think that there is some distrust,” said Gonnelli after the election. He would not say whether he voted for or against the budget. Gonnelli said that the presentations on the budget were all very vague.
“We did sit with the mayor and Council and everyone seemed to be happy when we went over [the budget],” said Manente.
Going line-item by line-item
By law, a budget rejected by the voters goes to the mayor and Town Council for review. They have until May 21 to make a decision on whether to make cuts.
“We are just going to take a good hard look at it,” said Gonnelli.
He said that the administration will see if there is any duplication of services or areas for trimming. He predicted the outcome won’t resemble the $1.1 million in cuts that were made last year after the budget failed by a majority vote.
“No matter where they cut, something is going to suffer,” said Manente. He said the current budget is down to the “bare bones” and there is not much room to trim. He said he hopes the mayor and Town Council will leave it intact.
“I hope they do the right thing,” said Snedeker.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.