CHERRY HILL, N.J. — The state pastime in New Jersey may be complaining about the state's highest-in-the-nation property taxes, but it's rare for voters to stand up against them.
That changed this week.
Urged on by first-year Republican Gov. Chris Christie as he tries to cut spending at all levels of government, voters rejected 59 percent of school budget proposals in local elections on Tuesday, sending them to municipal governing bodies for cuts. It was the first time in 34 years that the majority of budget proposals have been nixed.
Schools across the country have not been exempt as recession-depleted tax revenues have prompted state and local governments to reduce spending.
In New Jersey, where the schools are considered among the nation's best – and most expensive – the public seemed to validate that they, too, should share in the sacrifice.
While the results were close in many of the 537 school districts where budgets were on the ballot, they were strong enough for Christie to declare victory.
"Voters are saying they can no longer afford a government that wishes problems away," he said Wednesday. "We need to heed the direction the public is asking us to go in."
But to many educators and parents, Christie is cast even more now as an education-cutting villain.
Last month, he proposed cutting the state and federal allocation to schools by 11 percent in the fiscal year that begins July 1. Districts responded by crafting budgets calling for both tax increases and layoffs.
Then, Christie called for teachers to take voluntary pay freezes and begin paying part of their health insurance premiums, saying no layoffs would be necessary if they did. Next, he went further, imploring voters to reject budgets in districts where teachers didn't make concessions.
Teachers in only 20 districts have agreed to pay freezes or reductions.
The dispute got ugly. On an anti-Christie Facebook page with nearly 70,000 followers, one educator compared Christie to former Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. Christie accused schools that sent home election information with students as using them like "drug mules," although the New Jersey Education Association says the material in question wasn't advocating voting any specific way.
The teachers unions and the New Jersey Education Association both said the election results did not just reflect people siding with the governor over teachers.
"This was definitely a referendum on Gov. Christie," said NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer, who says Christie has tried to vilify the union and teachers. "But it was on his decision to force property taxes higher" by reducing state and federal education aid to public schools.
Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison, however, sees the governor's interpretation as right: "When the governor goes out and urges people to reject school budgets, and they do that," she said, "you have to chalk this one up as a win for the governor."
In Cherry Hill, a well-off Philadelphia suburb of some 70,000 with highly regarded schools, voters rejected the budget by a 52-48 margin.
As parents dropped off students Wednesday at Joyce Kilmer Elementary School, they lamented that by the time the township government is done making cuts, the layoffs are likely to be deeper than the 105 jobs the school board proposed eliminating.
"Unfortunately, I think there are a lot of older people in our town that voted the budget down," said Carolyn Lymber, the mother of a first grader and kindergartner, "people who are angry about the teachers and the benefits."
A group of retirees who gather every morning over coffee at the Cherry Hill Mall's food court all opposed the budget proposals in their districts.
They see schools as having too many administrators and have problems with their own finances: Medicare copays are rising, for instance, while Social Security checks aren't. And Christie's proposed budget calls for no property tax rebates until a year from now.
"We don't have the money," said Tony Alongi, 87, of Cherry Hill. "I was brought up that you don't buy things unless you have money."
AP writer Aaron Morrison in Trenton contributed to this article.