By Michael Laffey
As we approach annual School Board Elections in a year of severe budget cuts from the State and appropriate taxpayer anger over taxes I would like to share what I learned as a former Board of Education member with the public.
First there are school districts that do have bloated administrations and are fiscally irresponsible but not all school districts are like that. Case in point is Tinton Falls, where I reside. Tinton Falls reduced its number of administrators by 40% over a six year period. The portion of the Tinton Falls tax bill that is attributable to the K through 8 school system went from 50% of the tax bill down to 35% of the tax bill over a 10 year period (some of which was probably attributable to demographic changes). In the last 3 budget years they submitted a budget that was under the cap twice.
Here is where my problem with Governor Christy’s budget comes in. It does not factor in that some schools have been fiscally responsible. Those school systems that have been fiscally responsible are now being punished by across the board cuts because they have no fat to cut. Our reward for doing the right thing for the last 10 years is to now have our school system devastated by cuts. While I applaud the Governor for seeking to reduce government spending I wish he had done so with a more precise scalpel.
Secondly I believe that much of the anger about property taxes is misdirected. Yes teachers should not get an automatic increase in years where there is no inflation and the economy has caused a fiscal emergency and yes they should contribute to their health benefits. On the other hand teachers and most administrators are not overpaid. They are paid what is an appropriate amount considering the level of education required and the amount of work they do. Believe me teaching is a lot harder then it looks and if you want good teachers they have to be adequately compensated. The same is true for administrators. Yes many get paid more then the Governor, however, elected positions are considered public service and the payoff usually comes after they are out of office and garner large salaries for working as lawyers or consultants and pundits. School and municipal administrators are not engaging in the same type of public service. They are professionals trained to do a job. Yes the Superintendent of Middletown gets $175 K a year but if he where running a private corporation with the same number of employees and the same budget do you think he would be paid less? Do we not realize that salary potential will have an effect on the quality of people looking to do a particular job?
In the great scheme of things salary caps are just nibbling around the edges. Here is the thing that I learned as a Board of Education member that shocked me the most. High property taxes are not caused your municipality or your school district. HIGH PROPERTY TAXES ARE CAUSED BY THE STATE AND FEDERAL GOVERNMENT.
State and federal mandates are what causes your property taxes to go up. Most of the budget of your local schools can not be touched because of these mandates. A good example is special education costs. They compromised 20% of the Tinton Falls school budget. They can not be cut because of state and federal mandates. Now I am not saying that these students should not get these services but if the state is going to mandate it shouldn’t they pay for it? As a board member I lost count of the number of times someone suggested something that would generate revenue or improve education or cut costs only to be told that state law will not allow that. The upper levels of government have put hand cuffs on schools that prevent them from innovating.
Another example is the union negotiation tools the Legislature took away from school boards. Loosing these tools gave the unions the upper hand in negotiations (there is finally talk of giving those tools back). It is not the fault of the boards of education that teachers consistently get increases of over 4% a year. It is the fault of State Government.
Then there are the development laws. For every tax dollar collected on residential property approximately $1.50 in services are provided. High density residential development means higher taxes. Yet COAH has forced more high density development on towns. Some towns approved over 55 developments to try and keep property taxes lower. What did our legislature do last year? They passed a law that will allow many of the over 55 developments that have been approved to switch to family type developments. Tinton Falls has two large over 55 developments that have been approved. Thanks to the State there is a good chance that those developments will be allowed to sell to families with children. If the developers are successful in doing that the result will be that Tinton Falls will be forced to build a new school which will send taxes through the roof. Taking development decisions away from towns is a leading cause of high property taxes. The much maligned home rule would actually keep your taxes down if such a thing actually existed.
So don’t direct all your anger at your local school board or municipality when you get your high tax bill. Save some for the State.
Michael Laffey served as a member of the Tinton Falls BOE from 2003 to 2009. A believer in term limits he did not run for a third term.