Wantage Township and the Sussex Borough unanimously expressed their desire to return school board elections for High Point Regional High School and the Sussex-Wantage Regional School District to April to get school budgets back on the ballots.
Momentum started after the five sending districts to High Point Regional High School, which includes Wantage and Sussex, along with Lafayette, Branchville, and Frankford, got hit with a 14 percent tax levy increase in the 2020-21 budget.
When the budget was passed in April, Superintendent Scott Ripley said the district lost $753,678 in state aid for 2020-21. The school used “banked cap” – money the district could have taxed in the prior three years but didn’t because the levy was under the 2 percent limit – in the amount of $1.74 million.
“The problem was the cap banking,” said Wantage committeeman Ron Bassani. “The way a lot of the schools used the cap bank is what’s hurting us. That’s how our friends at High Point justify the 14 percent increase.”
Four of the five sending municipalities – all but Frankford – took High Point to court to roll back the tax increase, but the petition was rejected by an administrative law judge.
“I feel the school board, right now, is not accountable,” Wantage Mayor Jonathan Morris said. “I feel we need to make a stand for our residents. By doing this, this is the first step. If we can get all five municipalities to agree – and that’s no small feat and this may not happen this April – that is a big step.”
Bassani said 85 percent of Wantage tax goes to schools.
Lafayette Township Mayor Alan Henderson presented the resolution to the township committee as an informational item. It could go before the Lafayette Committee in January.
Morris said Branchville and Frankford are “wavering.”
If all five municipalities request that school board elections return to April, with no less than 85 days before the third Tuesday of that month, the school board could then pass its own resolution either to comply or outright refuse. But that must be submitted no less than 60 days before April’s third Tuesday.
If the school board overrules the municipalities, the matter could go to a referendum. Each municipality would need a petition signed by at least 10 percent of the voters in the previous election to get a referendum on the ballot.
A school board cannot overrule the voters.
Nearly 80 percent of Fredon voters on Nov. 5 voted by referendum to restore the Fredon Township school board election to April.
“It’s on the school board to stay they’re willing to be accountable and go to April,” Morris said. “Or they’re going to override us to push us to the next level.”
Before 2012, school board elections were held on the third Tuesday of April, and voters voted on school budgets. But in January 2012, then-Gov. Chris Christie signed a law allowing school boards to move their elections to November and to not have to present their budgets to the voters if the budget does not increase by more than 2 percent from the previous year.
About 530 school boards throughout the state elected to move their elections to November.
Wayne Dunn, High Point school board member and chair of the Public Relations subcommittee, said in an email on Sunday that the board of education has not seen any resolutions seeking to revert elections to April “so can offer no further comment on the matter”.
Nicholas D’Agostino, president of the Sussex-Wantage school board, could not be reached for comment.
“Nobody wants to see our schools fail,” Morris said. “The bottom line is we want the best for our schools and best for our kids. They’ve got to be accountable, just like everyone else is. The only way to hold them accountable is to have their budget approved by the taxpayers. Otherwise, it’s just a blank check.”
“I feel the school board, right now, is not accountable. I feel we need to make a stand for our residents. By doing this, this is the first step. If we can get all five municipalities to agree – and that’s no small feat and this may not happen this April – that is a big step.” Wantage Mayor Jonathan Morris