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.