The narrowly approved a resolution Monday that will move school board elections from April to November and remove the need to vote on the school budget provided it’s kept within the state-mandated cap.
Under the guidelines of New Jersey’s new school election law released by the state in January, districts were given the option of moving school board elections to coincide with the general election in November and eliminating the need to hold budget votes if they keep theirs within the state’s two percent cap on property tax increases. If the budget exceeds that cap, only the specific spending above the cap would be left up to voters to decide, but board president Arthur Levine pointed out Monday that there would still be a budget hearing if the resolution passed.
Hundreds of districts statewide had already passed similar resolutions making the move, and Fort Lee was up against a Feb. 17 deadline.
But Fort Lee school board members largely expressed indecision on the issue at last week’s public hearing, and members of the public seemed equally split in their opinions about potentially making the move.
The vote at Monday’s special public work session was as close as it could possibly have been—5 to 4—with Levine and board members Charlie Luppino, Angela Napolitano and Peter Suh and board vice president Linda McCue voting in favor of the resolution, and board members John Bang, Yusang Park, Joseph Surace and Helen Yoon opposing it.
“I believe in being a leader, not a follower,” Luppino said. “There will be adjustments that will need to be made along the way, but I think that going to November will get more people involved and will let the boards work better on establishing their budgets.”
But Bang, in explaining his ‘no’ vote, disagreed, saying that he thought Fort Lee resident Nina Levinson had it right when she said, “There were so many questions that are yet unanswered if the voting is changed to November; we should wait one year and then make up [our minds] with the experience of other towns being used to decide on whether it’s a good idea or not.”
“We should be leaders, but we should be leaders for things that matter,” Bang said, pointing to the recently announced first responder app as an example. “We’re not being leaders if we do this because 300 other schools are doing it.”
Bang added, “If we do this, and it’s terrible mistake, we’re stuck for four years. On the other hand, if we don’t do it, and it’s a terrible mistake, we can turn around and vote again next year.”
But Napolitano said Fort Lee should be looking at what’s best for its own school district and not turning to what happens in other towns.
“I think moving the election to November would be best simply because it would be a fair way for the community to be represented,” she said.
Suh admitted that he struggled with his decision, but ultimately decided to vote in favor of what he saw as being best for Fort Lee’s school children.
“A failed budget is quite possibly the worst thing that could happen to our district at this point,” Suh said. “I can’t take that risk that we’re going to cap our budget at two percent and possibly lose it in April just because we chose not to move the election to November.”
As for whether the move would “politicize” school board elections, which are supposed to be non-partisan—a recurring concern at the public hearing on Feb. 6—Levine said, “I don’t think it’s going to be any more political than it might be now.”
Also Monday, Business Administrator Cheryl Balletto provided an update on the superintendent search firm the district recently enlisted, and whether Leadership Advantage had agreed to re-insert into its agreement with the district a clause that had been removed offering to meet with stakeholders prior to conduction its search for a permanent superintendent.
Balletto said she “worked with Leadership Advantage to schedule the date,” which she said would be Wednesday, Feb. 29, from 7 to 8 p.m.