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8-17-06 Special Education costs & Constitutional Questions re Tax Reform
BERGEN RECORD, Special education students tax districts ..... PRESS OF ATLANTIC CITY, Legislators mull property tax rates for businesses and homes

Special education students tax districts
BERGEN RECORD, Thursday, August 17, 2006

HAWTHORNE -- With rising numbers of preschoolers in need of special education and no space to accommodate them, the school district has rented rooms in a Wyckoff church. It has signed a $56,000 three-year contract with the Second Reformed Church on Lafayette Avenue in Wyckoff, less than a mile from Jefferson Elementary School, said schools Superintendent Richard Spirito.

The district plans to send 26 preschool students with language disabilities from Jefferson to the church on Sept. 1, the first day of school, said Spirito. Although the move is temporary and the church is beyond Hawthorne's borders, the children will still be educated by district teachers.

School districts in North Jersey are increasingly finding creative solutions to reduce the cost of sending special education students out-of-district, mostly to private schools, as the number of special education students grows -- especially those who are autistic.

"The trend is districts want to bring their children back, because of the cost," said Aaron Graham, Bergen County schools superintendent.

Those costs can run as high as $100,000 or more per student per year, especially if the out-of-district facility requires paying room and board, said several local district superintendents. Hawthorne sends 47 students out-of-district, compared with about 70 a few years ago, said Spirito.

"We've slowly reduced that number," he said.

Nationwide, the number of federally supported special education students ages 3 to 21 has grown from 3.7 million to 6.7 million, between 1977 and 2005, according to the National Center of Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education.In Totowa, where special education costs make up 10 percent of the school budget, several schools are trying to bring out-of-district special education students back, said Totowa Schools Superintendent Vincent Varcadipane. Within a year, the district expects to start up a program for the autistic.

"It's a real burden on the taxpayer," he said, of out-of-district costs.

The number of special education students in Hawthorne is 300 -- 13 to 14 percent of the total student body, said Victor Terraglia, Board of Education president. The autistic group had just four or five students two years ago, and now has 18 to 20. Spirito said he can't explain the increases.

"Your guess is as good as mine," he said.

The state's 31 Abbott Districts must provide free pre-school education for all students. In non-Abbott districts, including Hawthorne, the state requires public funding for special-education preschoolers only.

A child undergoes a special education evaluation if a parent or teacher notices the child is having difficulty learning. A local child-study team then makes the determination. Hawthorne's child-study team consists of the special education director, a child psychologist, a social worker, and learning disability specialist, said Spirito.

Transferring special-ed children to an out-of-school location within the same district -- as in Hawthorne -- is allowed if approved by the state, said Jon Zlock, state Department of Education spokesman. Zlock could not immediately determine whether Hawthorne already has permission for the planned move to the church, he said.

The district originally planned to send the autistic group to the church. But after parents of autistic children protested the move, it was decided to instead transfer language-impaired students, said several parents of autistic students in the district. They said that autistic children in particular would have been unsettled by the move.



Legislators to mull property tax rates for businesses and homes

By TOM HESTER Jr., Associated Press Writer

Published: Thursday, August 17, 2006


TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - Whether businesses and homes should continue to be charged the same property tax rates will be examined Thursday by a special legislative committee looking for ways to cut the state's highest-in-the-nation property taxes.


The panel expects to hear from Rutgers University-Camden professors Robert F. Williams and F. Alan Tarr regarding a clause in the state constitution that requires all properties within a tax district by assessed and taxed the same way.


Williams also will likely address tax exemptions permitted under the constitution, which, for instance, allows breaks to farmers, veterans, seniors and those with disabilities.


No legislator has backed changing the constitutional language, but some have said it should be considered as the state debates ways to cut its heavy reliance on property taxes to fund county and municipal governments and schools.


"That uniformity clause, I think, is going to be of particular interest," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester.


 Businesses, though, have expressed dismay that the provision is even being discussed.

"The only point of changing it is to make the system less fair to commercial and industrial taxpayers and employers," said Arthur Maurice of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, which represents 23,000 businesses.


The average New Jersey property owner pays about $6,000 in property taxes annually, twice the national average. In recent years, property taxes have increased about 7 percent annually.


About $20 billion in property taxes is collected per year in New Jersey, and businesses pay about 30 percent of that.


Legislators have formed four special committees that have until mid-November to recommend how to decrease the reliance on the ballooning taxes. The goal is to enact reforms by the end of the year, and Gov. Jon S. Corzine wants to cut projected property tax growth by about 20 percent by 2010.


The committee scheduled to meet Thursday will analyze whether the constitution should be changed to cut property taxes. It will also determine how citizens might convene a constitutional convention to rework the state tax structure, should the Legislature fail to act.


Other panels will consider whether changes can be made to local government services, public worker benefits and school funding....

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