The punted a final decision on whether or not to use for property tax relief or additional spending in the school district.
The BOE voted during an emergency meeting late Friday afternoon to designate the additional $845,448 in state aid for inclusion in the 2011-2012 school budget, but deferred decisions on the exact spending and left open the door for using part or all of the funds for property tax relief. The board, which officially learned of the additional aid authorized by Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday, learned Thursday that they had to make a final decision on possibly using the funds for immediate property tax relief before Tuesday afternoon. Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf notified the board that while the funds could be used for spending, he and the governor were encouraging the funds be used for property tax relief.
Interim BOE Business Administrator Vincent Yaniro informed the board that any decision on spending had to be made quickly due to the need for Acting County Schools Superintendent Joseph Passiment to sign off on the budget change and notification that the decision would be needed by Passiment prior to his vacation starting on July 25.
“It’s ridiculous to have such time frames to make decisions,” Yaniro said. “To my knowledge we have never been in this position.”
Christie included the additional state aid funds in the recently passed state budget. The number represents a doubling of the increase Christie provided in state aid when the budget was proposed in February. The increase brings Westfield’s total state aid for the 2011-2012 school year to $2,139,241, up from $448,345 in 2010-2011.
Yaniro outlined that the board could vote for the tax relief – which he said translated to $83 per household – or earmark the funds for specific spending purposes or include the funds for spending, but defer the final decision.
Under the deferral plan – which the board adopted – the funds could be used for spending in the current budget or deferred – in part or in full - to either the 2012-2013 budget or the 2013-2014 budget. If deferred to the 12-13 budget, the funds could only be used for tax relief or facilities. If the board waited until the end of the 11-12 budget year to make a final decision, the funds could only be used in the 13-14 budget year under state rules.
The meeting – reminiscent of the board’s March 2010 meeting hours after – contained some confusion amongst board members and questioning of the time frames. In 2010, the board had two weeks to cut $4.22 million from the budget proposal. BOE members accepted the tax relief guideline – tax bills are being sent out on Tuesday – but questioned the time frame for a decision on how to spend funds. Board members said they were cautious on making final spending decisions since Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan is vacationing in London and will not be back in the office until Wednesday.
“He’s going on vacation. It doesn’t seem statutory,” BOE member Rosanne Kurstedt said of the Passiment’s decision to hear spending cases before July 25. “It is he’s going on vacation.”
The board chose the deferral plan – advocated by BOE Vice President Rich Mattessich – following a long debate, which temporarily reshuffled the board’s factions. Mattessich, the board’s finance committee chairman, said he wants to hear from Dolan at the July 26 BOE meeting, where she is scheduled to give a highly anticipated report on enrollment data, before making a final decision on spending.
“Without information it is hard to make a decision now,” he said.
BOE member David Finn was the board’s most vocal advocate for passing a property tax relief plan. Finn pushed for either spending the entire bonus on property tax relief or part of it on property tax relief. Finn made a proposal to spend half on immediate property tax relief, along with using a quarter for hiring and a quarter to suspend the for a year. Finn described the fee – implemented in the wake of last year’s school budget cuts – as a “tax” for parents.
“It’s a symbolic gesture that at times we need to make,” Finn said of the property tax relief plan.
Finn said he believed the school system was being tested by Christie, who has been waging a battle with the state’s education establishment for over a year. He said he believes the governor will be looking to see which districts provide tax relief – the governor’s preferred course of action – versus which districts use the additional aid for spending.
Finn said that he believes the district has done a good job managing with less funds, pointing to recent academic and student successes in the school district.
“I’m not going to vote for anything that does not give relief to taxpayers,” Finn said.
BOE member Mitch Slater joined Finn in support for an immediate tax plan. Slater and Finn have typically been aligned on issues, usually joined by Mattessich and BOE member Mark Friedman. Slater proposed possibly splitting the bonus in thirds for tax relief, hiring and suspending the .
“We are one of the highest taxed states in the country and one of the highest taxed counties,” Slater said.
A vote on Finn’s tax plan was defeated 7-2, with only Finn and Slater voting in favor.
“A reasonable taxpayer would want us to make an informed decision,” Friedman said of wanting to wait to make a final decision until after Dolan’s enrollment report.
Other board members said they preferred looking at the spending option, noting the series of budget cuts the board has been forced to make in the past few years due to state aid cuts by Christie and former Gov. Jon Corzine. BOE member Ann Cary said that she sees the funding as a restoration of the state aid the board has lost in recent years. She noted she does not know if the total tax relief would be enough.
“Eighty three dollars is taking your family of four to the movies twice without popcorn,” she said. “It is not meaningful.”
Cary said she also opposed Finn’s proposal to use half for property tax relief. Reiterating comments she made at the , Cary endorsed hiring new teachers for the south side elementary schools, particularly in the second grade. During the June 28 meeting, a large group of parents petitioned the board for additional second grade teachers, noting the class sizes were at the 25 student mark, similar to what the students had in first grade. and Schools also have been experiencing higher enrollment.
“I don’t call $42 tax relief,” Cary said. “To say to those parents that I am going to give you a check for $42 but your child has to sit in the class of 25 isn’t relief.”
While Dolan was not at the meeting, BOE members used a memo from the superintendent to the board in June listing a series of spending priorities for the district for part of the discussion. Dolan’s memo listed priorities similar to those discussed at previous BOE meetings.
- Part time special education coordinator at
- A third guidance counselor for
- Three second grade teachers
- District maintenance coordinator
- Higher stipend for the district’ energy coordinator
- An intermediate school librarian
- A transition coordinator for classified students
- A custodian
Under a spending menu, board members said a teacher or librarian costs the district a minimum of $75,000 a year, a transition coordinator is $85,000 a year and a custodian is $20,000. Board members said information obtained from a recent meeting of the Garden State Coalition of Schools – an advocacy group for suburban school districts – said that state aid will likely continue at the level with the bonus for the 2012-2013 budget.
“I think it’s clear we have plenty of places to spend,” Friedman said.
Walker also said the district could explore using the funds to buy new computers, which would meet the of improved science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. Walker said many of the elementary school computers are a decade old. Cary endorsed the idea.
“We adopted a goal of STEM and we don’t have the money to give computers to our kids,” Cary said.
BOE member Jane Clancy said she believes spending the bonus would allow the district to stop asking the PTOs for additional funding.
“The schools are going to the parents time and time again because the schools are lacking the technology and books, things we should be paying for,” Clancy said. “This feels like such a tease. We can do the right thing and help the children. That’s why I ran for the board.”
Walker said that the board would likely discuss the issue at the July 26 meeting, in conjunction with Dolan’s report. She did not entirely close the door on another meeting being called prior to the July 26 meeting to discuss the funding. The July 26 meeting is to be the board's third in July, a month typically marked by zero or one board meetings.
Walker, who has often lamented the loss of funds, said she hopes a final decision could be made following the enrollment report, noting the cuts in state aid have not left room for daydreaming for future spending possibilities.
“This is making a decision in a vacuum,” she said. “We have never considered what we would do if we got money.”