Toms River will hold its school board elections in November, and the annual budget question previously left in voters’ hands will now be voted by the school board itself.
Toms River Regional Board of Education voted 6-3 Thursday night to use a new state law allowing districts to move the April election to the November general election. The law comes with the stipulation that school districts must keep their budget increase at less than 2 percent each year.
In doing so, the budget question comes off the ballot. At an unusually crowded, special school board meeting — with more than 150 in attendance — held at Toms River High School South Thursday, most in attendance said they were in opposition to losing the right to vote on the school budget.
The meeting had about 20 residents speak on the only agenda item: the November election issue, sharing their thoughts on the impact to such things as voter turnout, school board transparency, existing tax bills, personal budgets, partisan politics and taxpayer oversight.
Those in support of the move to November said the impact would be increased voter turnout and more convenient voting hours.
Amid the vocal support from the audience — who at times heckled the board or erupted in applause and ovation of speakers — the decision of whether to move the election would ultimately fall to the school board. Three board members voted against the measure: Ben Giovine, Alex Pavliv and Loreen Torrone.
The six voting for the measure are Ed Gearity, Tom Baxter, John Reuther, Gus Kakavas, Jamie Ann Jubert and Michael Jedziniak.
Torrone first asked the board to table the measure. She said a "wait and see" approach was what the district needed.
"We'll be stuck with this for four years," Torrone said. Her motion failed to pass, with the same voting lines as would happen for the next motion, the question of whether to move the election.
Four board members offered comments as they gave their vote. Jubert, Kakavas, Gearity, Jedziniak and Baxter simply said "yes," while Reuther said he was voting yes to increase voter turnout.
"Ten percent come out to vote in the April election," Reuther said. In comparision, the coming November, with its presidential election, could have 70 percent. "We have an opportunity to expand the citizen process. ... No one disputes the fact more citizens will be involved in school vote in November. I do not fear that, I welcome that."
Torrone said her no vote was a vote on the side of caution.
"We need more time to study this, I feel it's trying to be rushed through," she said. "Let's be a little prudent."
Previously, Business Administrator Bill Doering said the move to November could also have a cost savings of $100,000 for the district, the cost of running an election.
Pavliv said he hoped the district would continue to find savings even greater than $100,000 elsewhere in the entire school budget.
"I hope you’ll all be consistent in saving money for taxpayers," Pavliv said, adding that he has asked the district to sell off its Cafe@1144, the eatery in the administration office that had a $250,000 shortfall.
Ultimately, for him the law allowing the change to November was too vague to vote yes.
"This bill passed three weeks ago," Pavliv said. "There's no interpretive statement with it... I don't know what to make of this bill. I see no harm in voting an additional year."
Giovine said he reiterated many points in an op-ed he submitted earlier in the week, saying he feared the move was taking away voter's ability to decide their own taxes.
"This is billions of dollars you will lose the right to vote on," Giovine said. "I don’t feel comfortable taking that right away."
He said the unique issues of a school district will be clouded among the multiple partisan contests that go on in a November election.
"There was a candidates debate hosted by the League of Women Voters, attended by 125 people," Giovine said of last April's school board race. "The freeholders held a candidate debate for November and 37 people showed up."
After the meeting, Board President Gearity said he understands a lot of the fears expressed by the audience, such as growing taxation. He said that while the budget will not be in the hands of voters, he has faith the board and the administration will make wise financial decisions.
"I have faith in Bill Doering. He accounts for every penny spent," Gearity said.
Superintendent Frank Roselli after the meeting said he welcomed all the comments said at the meeting and said the administration has worked hard to be open with the budget process.
In addition to the annual budget hearing, the district holds a budget presentation. Previously additional presentations were given to community groups and homeowner's associations. Roselli said much of that will still continue.
"People need to have accurate information, that's healthy," Roselli said of the turnout that night. "It's up to us to do our jobs well, to build credibility, to show the public we're making sound decisions on their behalf and that's what we'll continue to do."
Toms River Regional joins many other districts in Ocean County who have elected to make the switch. Gearity said the districts who have still not voted, or voted no, are Lakewood and Southern Regional.