After a considerable amount of discussion and having the topic talked about at the township level the Howell Board of Education voted to move the school board elections from April to coincide with the general election in November.
With a 5-3 vote the board moved the elections while showing how difficult a decision it has been for everyone involved. Board member Stephen M. Levine said he was concerned that the move would make the election process more political while bringing in more turnout of township voters.
Levine also said that he was concerned that if Howell did not move their elections while others did it would create a financial hardship that could impact other programs at the schools.
Fellow board member John Van Noy said he had several concerns about the legislation on a variety levels. That included putting more pressure and responsibilities on not only the district but also the state Department of Education which would have to fund the various election cycles that might be used across the state.
As part of his comments, Van Noy also expressed displeasure at the fact that the legislature had put the local boards in the position to make the decision in this manner. He called it a "mistake to provide all of these seemingly good choices and options," referring to the fact that the elections could have been moved by the board of education, the township council or a vote by the residents.
With the township possibly having the final say, Van Noy said it was important to him to make it the board's call as it would directly impact the district. "If we don't take action tonight, if we don't define how we feel about this issue the municipality has a right to vote on it in their next meeting." He added, "I think we should step up to the place and decide tonight."
Patrick Dowling was also in favor of acting on Wednesday night rather than waiting to see if any more information was gathered or the township made any decisions of their own. "Unfortunately we are in a representative democracy," he said. "The people have trusted us with some of the decisions we have talked about."
He said he believed the finance committee and the board would do their due diligence and make the best budget that would benefit the students and do the least damage possible to the taxpayer's wallets. "The people have chosen us right now and they'll have another choice in November about who they want to sit on the board."
Van Noy also echoed Levine's concerns about the elections becoming overly political. "Hopefully we can educate the public what we're doing here and what the administration is doing and having them recognize the excellence of education here in Howell."
As a long serving member of the board, Mary Cerretani said she was also concerned about the political ramifications of the move. "I'm very concerned about this becoming a political board," she said. "I have been very concerned about that over the last few elections. This is not about politics, this is about the education of our children."
Cerretani said she wanted to make sure that politics did not play a prominent role in how the board conducts its business. "People that are on this board need to be on the board because they care about the education of our children," she said. "I am definitely in favor of moving it to November and hope that this community keeps politics out of it."
For Board Vice President Suzanne Brennan, her biggest concern was the fact that the move to November meant that if the proposed budget came in under the two percent cap it would not needed to be voted on by the citizens of Howell.
She also was looking for more guidance from those residents. "We have not reached out to our community," she said. "I don't know that I can speak for the community at this point." Because of that she said she had "reservations about the move."
Along those lines Al Miller said he felt he had to act in the best interests of the residents who elected the members. "As a board we are accountable to the township and we do represent their best interests," he said.
Having spoken to some of the residents he said many were in favor of the move to November, but not losing the vote which was not an option presented by the legislature. "To me, I don't think we should be rushing into this," he said. "This is a huge change for our community."
The third no vote came from Jeanette Smith who said she was in favor of the option that would have put the question to a referendum.
One member of the board who had also expressed concerns about the loss of the vote for the residents was President Tim O'Brien. After a lot of thought and discussion, O'Brien said he was able to come to a decision. "The important thing here is that it's hard to make a change like this," he said. "People are accustomed to having the right to vote and they feel they are losing that representation."
Saying he was in favor of allowing residents to vote O'Brien said he was aware of the risks that came with making the move while not knowing what the final result would be until the election actually happens. "The opportunity to have significantly higher voter turnout is something we can't pass up," he said.
The president of the board also acknowledged that with no vote by the public, there will be more attention focused on them as they make their decisions in the upcoming budget cycle under the new system.
With the move the Howell schools join the two Freehold districts as well as Manalapan as sending districts from the Freehold Regional High School district who have passed similar votes in recent weeks. If all the towns pass similar resolutions the regional district will be forced to make the move as well.
State Senator Robert Singer, who was called on to give information about the legislation also confirmed that even if there is no public vote on the budget it would still have to go through the same steps of being approved by not only the board but also at the county level.
Board secretary Ron Sanasac also said that there would still be a public hearing on the budget so that residents would be informed of what was involved although they would no longer be able to vote on it.
Singer added that the new system would be a show of trust between the members of the public and the board with the approval of the budget.
Much as he had done Tuesday night before the Township Council, Singer said making the move to November is designed to not only increase voter turnout, but also save towns the cost of holding two separate elections.
Singer, who voted for the bill said one of the biggest arguments against the change is that it would eliminate the vote on the school budget for districts that stayed below the two percent cap.
Superintendent Enid Golden said she commended the senator and the members of the state legislature for making the move possible. She said that with so many districts making the change those who do not will have to pay more for their elections.
With the majority vote, Howell Township residents will now wait until Nov. 6 to vote for not only the council seats that are up for a new term but also the members of the board of education who will also be seeking reelection.