Welcome to Laurie Goodman's blog. I use this space to share news and opinions about education and schools in Ridgewood, the state of New Jersey and the nation, in addition to other issues I'm personally interested in. I invite you to share your thoughts, feelings, questions or opinions, too, by posting comments on any blog entry. Please observe basic courtesy -- keep your comments focused on issues, no personal attacks or bullying, please. Contact me directly at: lauriegood@mac.com

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The myth of the “budget vote.”

Yes, it’s an intentionally provocative title, but I wanted to share a perspective that I’ve commented on before, especially when I hear Ridgewood residents arguing about the upcoming election and whether they plan to vote for or against "the budget."

In addition to electing members of the Board of Education*, on April 27 the ballot question will read:

Resolved, that there should be raised for the General Fund $81,323,178 for the ensuing school year (2011-2012).

Voters (whether they are taxpayers or not, by the way) are asked to approve the total amount of taxes, for the schools, to be levied via property taxes. That’s it. We are not voting for or against the budget – not voting on how that tax levy is spent, and not voting on how much is allocated to the various lines and cost centers.

Based on that understanding of the fact of the vote process, and with New Jersey’s government-mandated 2% cap on how much the tax levy is allowed to grow, I can understand the occasional argument from Trenton that the annual “budget vote” is unnecessary if a district’s budget is under the legal cap. Sure, the vote is a rare democratic access point between residents and the delivery of their money to the “public good,” and people do like to feel like they have a say in what happens with their hard-earned taxes. (Imagine if we could vote on the Federal budget…or the state budget…the mind reels at the prospect of TV ads bought by PACs and political parties.) But how much of a say is that vote in April?

If you think the school district should spend more money on this program or that program, your vote really doesn’t affect that. If you want the school district to hire this teacher or fire that administrator, your vote doesn’t affect that. If you think your vote will send a message to the teacher’s union, I’m not so sure how your vote would affect that. The only thing our vote does is decide how much money will be collected from all the taxpayers in Ridgewood and delivered to the school district. How the money is divvied up is proposed by the administrators and approved by the BOE…whom you elect to do so.

I understand how some can feel powerless…that the vote is sort of futile, because it’s already a done deal by the time it’s on the ballot. I happen to think that we can do a better job of ascertaining what residents think about the budget – before the annual school election. I’ve talked about creating opportunities for more citizen involvement, earlier in the process. Practically speaking, I’m not entirely sure how. Fact is, the budget is big and complicated and not really something that can be reduced to “sound bites” – despite the public’s penchant for framing issues that way. Typical political polarization doesn’t really work on something this complex, with direct results on 5800+ individual students with individual needs, individual preferences and individual issues.

So, I just wanted to add a little education as to what you’re truly voting for or against on April 27. It's not "the budget." It's the proposed tax levy as indicated above. This tax levy reflects the lowest tax increase since the mid-1980s. It represents 0% total growth in the total budget, except health insurance, which we are estimating to rise 12%. (In fact, if it weren’t for the increase in health benefits, the budget would be going down $75,000.) And it keeps the education our children are currently receiving intact. A “yes” vote sets the tax rate. A “no” vote charges the Village Council with setting the tax rate. They don’t get to recommend cuts. They don’t order changes in spending on this vs. that. They just set the tax rate, presumably lower than what the Board asked for on the ballot.

However you feel about the tax levy, I hope you will get out and vote.

*Should probably mention again that I hope you will re-elect me to the Board. Our schools are facing the toughest time in their history. Rising costs, dwindling resources and increased regulations from the state have contributed to an environment where providing the quality education Ridgewood expects and deserves is more difficult than ever. I have worked hard for the past three years, and I believe I have so much more to give to our schools and our community.


Anonymous said...

Laurie, it seems that you are trying to separate the vote for the tax levy from the school budget in an attempt to convince the parents of our community to vote for the tax levy this month. You even hint that in the event the tax levy is defeated, the Village Council will lower it, therefore lowering the tax revenue available to the schools. You freely admit that the public is powerless in determining the school budget which is in the hands of the BOE.

You are right. The public certainly has been powerless regarding the allocation of our tax dollars in the school district, the product of the levy we will be voting on. But that doesn't mean we are completely powerless. The BOE has had more than enough opportunity to be influenced by the many members of the public that have reached out to the board, but has chosen, for the most part, not to be.

So how do we exercise our power? With our votes. If we do not approve of the BOE's budget proposal, we certainly should not support the tax levy that funds it. And if the levy is defeated and the Village Council does lower it, we will all be watching the BOE to see if the cuts come from the classroom, the administrative staff, the new lighting and upkeep for our new artificial turf fields, or somewhere else. Last year, when the tax levy was voted down, we watched the BOE change nothing in the school budget proposal therefore forcing a budget that the majority did not want upon us. Our only opportunity to truly make a statement about what we want that actually matters is by the vote on the tax levy that you refer to. A no to that is a no to your budget proposal.

And while we're talking about voting, a vote for Ms. Krauss, in the absence of a vote for you or Ms. Brogan, is another statement that the public can make. It is very important that the public exercise it's right and privilege to weigh in on the issues that effect our village. Nothing personal Laurie, but if we don't like the decisions the BOE is making, we need to do what we can to change the BOE as the opportunities present themselves. Talking about how to involve the public in the BOE's decision making process at election time means nothing. Your track record and how we feel about it, says it all. I certainly hope that the public does come out to vote and that we have a record turnout this year.

Laurie said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I, too, would love to see a record turnout for the election. I’m all for increased participation. I’ve marveled at how, in true achiever fashion, Ridgewood’s voter turnout – at around 18%-20% -- is far above the state average for school elections.

I have a few quibbles with your arguments, but my main issue would be your characterization of one of my comments: I did not say, and don’t think, “the public is powerless.” I said I understand how one can FEEL powerless. But I totally get the power of the voting booth.

I just thought it would be helpful if everyone understood how the "budget vote" is really the "tax levy vote." Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I think the people that come out to vote understand this Laurie. It's not a difficult concept. But thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Laurie said...

Actually, based on some conversations I've had, you'd be surprised...