40-16-06 Gannett & Asbury Park Press on School Budget election issues
Headline- Schools asking for more from local taxpayers..."Because of years of little or no increases in state aid, school districts are relying more on local taxpayers to fund public education...Still, there is fear among school officials that backlash over property taxes the top issue during last fall's elections that now gets scant mention in Trenton will be taken out on their budgets...John A. Meyerle, chairman of the New Jersey Coalition for Property Tax Reform, which is pushing to fund education more through the state's income tax, said the state has to stop cutting funding to local districts. "The state, for all intents and purposes, is making the schools look a whole lot worse than they really are," Meyerle said.

Sunday, April 16 2006

 

Schools asking for more from local taxpayers

N.J. districts seek $10.5B in levies

Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 04/16/06  Front Page

BY GREGORY J. VOLPE
GANNETT STATE BUREAU

TRENTON Almost a month after Gov. Corzine announced a state budget plan including $1.5 billion in new taxes, school boards across the state this week will ask voters to approve property tax levies that would rise an average of 7.6 percent.

Proposed local tax levies for the 549 school districts that have elections Tuesday total $10.5 billion up $745 million from current levels. And that doesn't include debt service, the 53 tax-levying districts in which the public doesn't get a vote, or more than $33 million in added taxes that 57 districts seek through extra questions for things such as courtesy busing, renovations and specific teaching staff or programs.

Because of years of little or no increases in state aid, school districts are relying more on local taxpayers to fund public education.

"We're at the point in time where if the system's not broken, we're in dire straits," said Jerry Cantrell of Randolph, a former school board president who formed a tax reform group.

Assemblyman Bill Baroni Jr., R-Mercer, hopes constituents get that message to their elected officials.

"The ideal world is to walk out of the voting booth and pick their phone up to their legislator and say: You better fix this system," Baroni said. "This system is not benefiting the kids. It is not benefiting taxpayers. If we landed on the planet today and tried to come up with a system of funding free public education, this would be the last one we came up with."

This year's levy increase follows one of $584 million, or 6.3 percent, between the 2004-05 school year and the current one. Those figures don't include the $802 million in tax levies spent by county-run districts, such as vocational and technical schools, special-services districts and 24 districts that have appointed, not elected, school boards.

Tax levies, the total amount collected from local taxpayers, don't exactly translate to equal increases in property tax bills because they don't account for changes in the district's ratable base. As property values in a town increase, because of improvements or new development, tax bills don't rise as fast as tax levies.

Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said school boards could cope with flat funding from the state if not for increases in fixed costs for things such as fuel, utilities and health care.

"It seems to be yet another year where the state aid has been stagnant, and it puts the pressure on property taxes," Yaple said. "Home and business owners end up paying more."

Yaple said he expects that the number of school tax levies rejected by voters this year will increase from last year, when 70.7 percent of districts saw success at the polls. Approval hasn't been below 60 percent since 1994.

"I don't think anyone expects the approval rate to drop below 50 percent. We haven't seen that happen for three decades," Yaple said. "But then again, I don't think anyone expects it to be like it was several years ago when the economy was hot and they were in the 80 percent range."

Approval rates tend to follow the economy, and the state's financial news hasn't been good forcing Corzine to propose a bevy of tax increases and budget cuts.

"An awful lot of these budgets are going to be defeated, but the whole thing is a farce because anyone who gets their budgets cut is going to have those cuts restored," said Steve Lonegan, the mayor of Bogota and state director of Americans for Prosperity. "We've seen it over and over again. School board votes are a joke."

Last year, voters in 161 districts rejected their proposed levies. Twenty budgets weren't changed in the subsequent review by municipal officials and the state, and the remaining were reduced by $57.8 million or an average of about $400,000 per district.

Still, there is fear among school officials that backlash over property taxes the top issue during last fall's elections that now gets scant mention in Trenton will be taken out on their budgets.

Terry Kraft of Howell, a member of the Freehold Regional Board of Education, said the district has grown from 8,500 students to 12,000 in five years.

"In that time, we've had no additional help from the state at all, so the entire increase in student population has been funded by the taxpayer," Kraft said. "It's a critical issue. It's pretty much unfair to the taxpayer."

John A. Meyerle, chairman of the New Jersey Coalition for Property Tax Reform, which is pushing to fund education more through the state's income tax, said the state has to stop cutting funding to local districts.

"The state, for all intents and purposes, is making the schools look a whole lot worse than they really are," Meyerle said. "Although spending has to be brought under control, I think in the short term we're going to be seeing these types of increases.

"Not that I recommend that people vote these budgets down," Meyerle said. "We just have to make sure that we as private citizens let our legislators know that the present budget process, which drives property taxes through the roof, is something they won't tolerate."

Gregory J. Volpe: gvolpe@gannett.com