Angry New Jersey voters sent a strong message Tuesday when they rejected almost 60 percent of local school budgets.
That’s the largest repudiation of school budgets in decades. Traditionally, voters approve 70 percent of the budgets without much thought.
But New Jersey residents are fed up with paying the highest property taxes in the country, and not getting much more in return for the steady annual increases.
They are also fed up with unchecked spending at all levels of government.
So, they took out their frustration by exercising their will over school spending plans, the only public budget put directly before the voters.
They turned down 315 of 537 proposed school budgets statewide. The turnout for what is normally a pro forma event was the largest in years — a further signal of the pent-up anger that fueled Gov. Christie’s election in November
The vote is another victory for Christie. He called for voters to reject school budgets if their teachers refused to accept a one-year wage freeze to minimize drastic program and job cuts.
For its part, the teachers union should see the election outcome as a signal to seriously reconsider its opposition to a salary freeze. New Jersey faces an $11 billion deficit on a budget of about $30 billion. Christie understands the state can’t keep asking taxpayers for more.
Nationwide, employees have been forced to take furloughs, accept pay cuts and salary freezes, and contribute more for health care. In several other states, teachers are being laid off by the thousands.
In New Jersey, teachers must also share the sacrifices called for by Christie. Given the alternative of massive layoffs, the one-year pay freeze seems reasonable. Such a move would help balance budgets, keep programs intact, and keep more teachers employed.
The teachers understandably feel as if they are under attack. The union is not used to getting pushed around by elected officials, and Christie’s tone has been especially harsh.
He should keep in mind that there are many dedicated, hardworking teachers. And when the economy rebounds, talks could reopen to restore their wage increases.
For now, it falls upon the local town governments to figure out how to responsibly balance their school budgets. They have a duty to voters to further rein in spending while trying to meet the educational needs of students.
New Jersey must find a way to adequately fund schools without overburdening taxpayers. Until then, districts must find ways to live within in their means and still provide a high-quality education.
With wages flat in the private sector, and many out of work, now is not the time for more spending.