Lost: Your Right to Vote on the School Budget

On Oct. 5, 2015, your Chatham School Board abolished your right to vote on its $60 million annual operating budget. With that vote, the Board ended a Chatham tradition, destroying one of the pillars of community support for our schools and our property values.

The Board abolished your right to vote for its own convenience. The Board did so without publicizing the issue, and over the objection of almost every citizen who had ever publicly opined on the subject, including some 300 voters who had submitted written petitions and dozens more who had spoken out at recent Board Meetings, pleading with the School Board not to take away their right to vote – or at least to give voters a chance to vote on a Public Question on the matter.

See minute 28:36 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bwTflp7EfU&list=PLtSqyQYTV1Iy6G-Bpc8toxsoCjmzvCsgI&index=136

At the 5 Oct 2015 Board meeting among the crowd beseeching the Board to preserve our right to vote were Chatham residents off all stripes, including booster parents, empty-nesters, retired folks, education activists, and longtime staunch school budget supporters, as well as the usual skeptics, all united in opposition to losing our right to vote on the school budget. (Skip to 22 minutes.)   At least one former Board member warned of the risks. Most of the School Board turned a deaf ear to all their pleas.

One Board member stooped to browbeating a constituent on camera at the August 31, 2015 meeting, which can be seen on the videotape, starting at approx. 1 hour, 43 minutes or here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=OE1pBqd3_Yc

The Board returned for the September 15th meeting armed with several specious arguments for taking away our right to vote, none of which have withstood scrutiny. See “Losing your right to vote: fact versus myth.”

The chief effect of last night’s Board resolution is to spare the Board the bother of having to justify the way they choose to spend 2/3 of our property tax dollars.  The resolution also deprives Chatham voters of any meaningful say in the operation of our schools until at least 2020. In effect, we’ve written a blank check.

Each year from now on, we will be required to give the Board at least as much money as we gave them last year, to spend as they please – plus an extra 2% if they so desire – plus whatever it takes to cover certain exempt costs, including medical and pension expenses we can’t even guess at.  Unless the Board requires even more than that – say for a big capital project – the public and even parents will have no meaningful say in the operation of our schools and we will be powerless to correct bad budgets or rein in excessive or misguided spending.

Board member Richard Connors, a lawyer, made a poignant speech about how he was serving the children of Chatham by stripping their parents of the right to vote on the school budget. Only Matt Gilfillan and Kim Cronin dissented out of respect for justice. Lata Kenney was absent.

A citizen who expressed his dismay from the back row was escorted from the room by a Chatham Township police officer, on hand in response to extremely exaggerated Board claims of booing and shouting at the September 15th meeting. A participant at that meeting recalls only a single boo, noted but inaudible on the videotape at approx. 24 minutes, 24 seconds and someone talking out of turn at 49 minutes.

The timing of the Board’s decision to abolish our vote raised concerns that it was done in reaction to record 35% voter turnout to reject the Board’s $25 million Arts Center referendum by 2 to 1 last April 2015. Before that, the Board had not shown any serious interest in exercising its power to abolish our right to vote on the budget. Member Richard Connors – leading proponent of abolishing our right to vote this time – had opposed a similar proposal by Lata Kenney that failed by a vote of 6 to 2 back on March 28, 2011. Even after most other school boards had done away with budget voting, our Board deferred to the recommendation of the Finance Committee to preserve budget voting. All that changed only after Chatham voters rejected the $25 million Arts Center referendum in April 2015.

What can you do? Plenty:

Get the facts.
Write a letter to the editor: [email protected]
Demand that the Board promise to restore our right to vote at the first chance. [email protected] and 973-457-2400.
Find out what the Board is up to next.
Attend the next Board meeting on Nov 2, 2015 at 7:30 pm at the Chatham Township Municipal Building, 58 Meyersville Road.
Never vote YES without fully understanding both sides.
Sign the petition.
Volunteer to serve on the Board. The next election will be in Nov. 2016.
Stay informed. Read the Tap. Visit ChathamChoice.org.