Opinion: Why The School Referendum Failed
Last month, voters in Midland Park sent a resounding "no" to the Board of Education's $15.3 million buildings referendum. The two-part plan was defeated 1,097-to-617 for the first question and 1,130-to-487 for the second. Slightly more than one-third of registered voters cast ballots in the election. After talking and listening to many different people in town, I have identified several reasons why I think the referendum failed. In no particular order of importance:
1. Lack of information.
I did not vote. My policy is to never cast a ballot without doing my homework first. There was information out there, but it required effort on my part. I should have gone to a forum, or reviewed it on the district website. But between the disruption following the hurricane and the whirlwind of life, I just didn't get around to it.
There were articles in the paper and mentions on Facebook, but I did not take the time to research. A detailed analysis of information was not presented to me in a compelling enough way to grab my attention. If had I seen images of the high school hallways lined with garbage cans on rainy days or the bathrooms in the elementary school, I probably would have made a point to get to the polls.
(Part of the reason I started Midland Park Press was to ensure information in town is available, easy to access and convenient to share.)
2. Lack of Communication.
Town officials appear put off that they weren't afforded the courtesy of advanced notice of the referendum. At the Dec. 20 council meeting, the borough administrator said she first learned of the referendum through the newspaper. As the mayor added, "If you don't know about something, you can't support it."
While the school district went through the proper channels and followed official protocol, a courtesy call or email to the administrator (who also serves as Election Official) probably would have been nice. A formal presentation at a council meeting, may have been even better. Even though the Board of Education and Borough Council are separate entities and do not have a say in each others' finances, both bodies should be working cooperatively for the benefit of the community. Open communication is a good place to start.
3. Lack of Planning...
To sum up the viewpoint of community elders: "Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."
The borough council budgets for project on a "pay as you go" basis. Each year, they put a little aside for upcoming costs. They know the equipment they have will need to be replaced in X amount of years and budget accordingly. So the question is: Why didn't the school district plan for these repairs and budget accordingly? Historically, school budgets in Midland Park are typically approved by the voters. The facility problems are not new, so why wasn't it taken care of as part of the operating budget? Why is it being treated as a $15.5 million emergency now?
From the schools perspective, they face budgetary challenges including an $800,000-plus annual reduction in state aid and a 2% budget cap that must be balanced against the rising cost of salaries, benefits, utilities and state-mandated programs. When Gov. Christie implemented tight fiscal restraints on school districts, he eliminated any surplus districts may have accumulated for a "rainy day." Districts can no longer squirrel away money for projects down the road.
4. Lack of Clarity/Transparency
There seems to be confusion over what items were included in past referendums and budgets, and what items were not. Weren't boilers replaced in the 1980s? Wasn't a new roof included in past budgets or a referendum? Didn't we already pay for new bathrooms? I'm coming late to the game, so I don't know all the answers.
Part of the problem is the district has held multiple referendums over the years, some of which passed and some didn't. When a referendum fails, a scaled down plan is presented and passed, and it is hard for the average citizen to keep track of what made the cut into the proposals that were approved.
5. Lack of Support
The Midland Park Taxpayers Alliance launched an effective campaign against the referendum. The group hired a PR Agency to mobilize the "no" vote through robo-calls, lawn signs and letters to the editor. They may have even provided transportation to help Seniors get to the polls.
At the end of the day, supporters of the referendum failed to mobilize their base. While the Board of Education can't fund a PR campaign using taxpayer money, parents can. If parents, students and teachers want the next referendum to succeed, they must do a better job using whatever tools are available to get out the vote.
Do you think there are other reasons why the referendum failed? Is there something you would differently? Share your thoughts in the comments, below.