BOE Defers Final Decision on Tax Relief vs. Spending

Board places extra state aid in budget, to make final decision at future meeting.

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.”

aclarke3 July 18, 2011 at 06:00 PM
“It’s ridiculous to have such time frames to make decisions,” Yaniro said. “To my knowledge we have never been in this position.” “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.” What a terrible problem to have. Stop your whining, do your job and get it done.
JamesMarino July 18, 2011 at 06:06 PM
If this were a matter of the needs of the district being met adequately by the 2011-12 budget, then I would agree that the motion for a distribution to the taxpayers of this payment from the state was properly brought, and it should have carried. However, the reason it did not carry was not because 7 people on the board are not in favor of the distribution back to the taxpayers. They voted against it because the motion was premature, in light of the insufficient information with regard to a late-breaking issue that arose a few weeks ago, namely the possibly larger class sizes in 3 elementary schools. As the article makes clear, the board is awaiting final enrollment numbers in about 2 weeks, as well as an indication from the superintendent as to whether funds can be found in the 2011-12 budget to pay for possibly-needed elementary school teachers to alleviate the larger class sizes. If it is found that the classes will be within the lower end of the targeted range (as mandated by the district's policy) or in the event they fall above that lower end, but funds can be found in the existing budget to alleviate that problem), then the new-found money can and should be distributed to the taxpayers. If, however, they fall above that lower range and no funds can be found, then we as a district are obligated to use these new funds to make the adjustments necessary to comply with the district's class-size policy for elementary schools. Otherwise, why have the policy?
Joe Horan July 18, 2011 at 06:39 PM
Mr. Marino- Huh? Lots of words with no substance. Its very simple- Taxpayer denied.....end of story.
JamesMarino July 18, 2011 at 06:43 PM
But is is not "the end of the story" Mr. Horan. As the article makes clear, the Board will vote on the issue again, once they have the information needed to make an informed decision.
Joe Horan July 18, 2011 at 06:55 PM
Mr. Celack- Can you clarify this- I thought I read in your story that the deferral is only for spending and possibly "future" tax relief and means no relief for this year. Maybe you can break the tie here and explain. I just don't get why taxpayers have to wait if its there money?
JamesMarino July 18, 2011 at 07:08 PM
Mr. Horan, John can weigh in if he wants, but here is the portion of the article that pertains to the deferral: "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." I agree with you that this means we will have to wait, and I have also stated that the money should be returned if not needed. However, there is a possiblity that the money will be needed in the 11-12 budget (southside elementary schools), so it was prudent to wait to see if that issue needs to be addressed. No one wants to wait, but we have to because the district has a policy regarding class sizes, which we are obligated to follow. I don't have children in those schools, but it would be unfair not to address the problem if it was discovered that the classes are too large and we had the money to alleviate the problem. Let's hope that it is found that the classes are not too large, and that the money can be distributed (or found elsewhere in the 11-12 budget), albeit later than everyone wants.
Donna Snyder July 18, 2011 at 08:11 PM
Mr. Marino- You sound like you are very tied in- Why can't Northside Schools (Franklin, for example) have better class sizes. I was unaware that there is only one side of town (Mrs. Cary) "Cary endorsed hiring new teachers for the south side elementary schools, particularly in the second grade:\"
Gary McCready July 18, 2011 at 08:16 PM
Every year depending on how the enrollment is there are different "hot spots" where the enrollment gets close to 25 in a grade level at one elementary school or another. The funds would go to hire additional teachers to bring those numbers in the specific grades and schools down - it is not northside or south, just were enrollment is highest at the lower grades. More detail should come out on the 26th (but really should be on the website before then, so affected parents will know if they need to leave their shore houses to attend a summer BoE meeting).
John Celock July 18, 2011 at 08:43 PM
Mr. Horan, Jumping in on this one to clarify. Yes, the BOE vote means that no tax relief will be provided for this year or for the 2011-2012 fiscal year (which ends June 30, 2012). That is due to the tax bills being mailed out on Thursday, which means the final paperwork would need to be prepared and submitted by end of day Tuesday. The vote from the BOE to defer means that the BOE can appropriate the money for spending in the 2011-2012 budget or defer it for tax relief in either the 2012-2013 budget or the 2013-2014 budget or possibly for facilities use. This is dependent on the date the BOE takes action. The earliest the funds can now be used for tax relief would be in for the first tax bill of the 2012-2013 fiscal year, which would be the summer of 2012. I hope this answers your question. John
JamesMarino July 18, 2011 at 09:03 PM
Ms. Snyder, Please see Mr. McCready's response below. I believe that Ms. Cary's comment was with regard to the southside elementary schools because that is where an issue has arisen. I don't think her comment can be taken as an indication that the northside elementary schools are being ignored by her or anyone else. Indeed, the article (and her quote therein) pertains to the possible use of this new-found money to address the late-breaking enrollment issue on the southside. The article was not about whether the northside schools have the same problem, so I don't read her quote as pertaining to that type of discussion. I have not heard of the issuing arising in any particular grade in any particular north side elementary school for this year, so I don't know what you mean by "better". My understanding is that the maximum for any grade is 25, with the desire to be closer to the low 20's for elementary schools where possible. If the final enrollment data shows that other schools have the same issue, then of course that issue should be addressed in the same manner. I guess we will see in a few weeks, but I have confidence that the Board will do what needs to be done in accordance with the policy, irrespective of where the particular school is situated.
Stan Laderman July 18, 2011 at 11:22 PM
Just read this. Very sad indeed that our elected officials "punted" and denied taxpayers money today. Sounds more like a fumble to me. We will remember those who did this when they run again.
NJD July 19, 2011 at 02:08 AM
Did everybody forget that Governor Christie took away over 90% of the state funding for our schools just a year ago? Now he gives a small percentage of our school funding back and has the audacity to tell us what we should do with it? That money belongs to the schools and should be spent on our schools. When we recoup the money that we had in our budget from the state for our schools in the 2009-2010 budget when we still averaged one of the lowest per pupil costs in the state, then we should start talk about tax relief with any excess funding. The governor has a very short memory. Don't blame our school board for that.
George Wiss July 21, 2011 at 12:39 PM
Was out of town and just read this and Leader! Cannot believe only 2 School Board members (Finn and Slater) voted to return money to taxpayers! This is outrageous and shameful and disappointing news. I realize the schools need money but so do those of us that depend on Social Security these days.
aclarke3 July 21, 2011 at 04:35 PM
Typical misconception, but wrong. The money does not belong to the schools. It belongs to the taxpayers and the school board should not be in a position to decide how it is allocated.
NJD July 21, 2011 at 05:34 PM
Aclarke3; there is no misconception at all. That money was already part of the school budget that was passed by the citizens of Westfield and subsequently taken away by the governor, not the citizens of Westfield. Now that a portion of it is put back into the till, it should be determined by the school board how that money is spent.
Jan Alderson July 21, 2011 at 06:25 PM
True the school board should determine by vote....But those that opposed some tax relief will have to answer to the voters for not doing the right thing and giving some relief from our overtaxed state and county (with the exception of Mrs. Cary who doesn't need the money apparently)
aclarke3 July 22, 2011 at 12:35 AM
How do you think local and state governments generate revenue? They do not create it, they tax citizens. The "found money" was not part of the budget passed in April and the Governor did not take anything away from this budget, in fact he has returned money to our town via this additional aid. In doing so the NJDOE suggested that boards should use the funds for tax relief.
Jeff Peskin July 22, 2011 at 01:11 PM
Incredible story- Can't believe our School Board denied us tax relief and that Mrs. Cary had the nerve to say the amount is" not meaningful?" Is she the Queen of Westfield or something?
Amy Mantel July 22, 2011 at 01:15 PM
Agree with aclarke3- this is pathetic- Seems like Westfield Schools are doing great -its taxpayers that are suffering. (except Mrs. Cary,of course)
NR9 July 22, 2011 at 01:40 PM
In defense of Mrs. Cary, and at risk of having a bunch of Patch readers attacking this comment as well... (1) She was suggesting that the money be used for additional TEACHERS in our schools for our town's CHILDREN. She was not suggesting that the Board of Ed. members proceed from the meeting into a limo and head down to Atlantic City for a good time, at taxpayer expense. (2) As for the specific dollar amount mentioned, $42 per household, that she was suggesting be used for our town's SCHOOLS, well let's point out that she was NOT suggesting $4,200 per household going to the schools for more teachers... we're talking about $42. That's two Andrew Jacksons and two George Washingtons. Most Westfield adults probably have at least that much, literally, in their pockets, as I write this. Yes, I realize that there are people, even in Westfield, who are having tough times. But again, keep the dollar amount in perspective before you go attacking Mrs. Cary so strongly. So please, no need to attack Mrs. Cary as if she is the devil looking to "steal" the food from your children's plates. She is instead looking to add more teachers to the school system with the very honorable motive of improving Westfield children's educational experience.
Brain Surgeon July 22, 2011 at 02:10 PM
You don't need to be me to know Mrs. Cary wasn't looking to pocket the money- But her arrogance in thinking the other 30,000 residents wouldn't mind the help is pure arrogance. Stop counting everyones money and assuming everyone in town is loaded like you and Mrs. Cary.
Gary McCready July 22, 2011 at 04:12 PM
Well, I guess everyone should move in lockstep on the BoE as in the good old days, right? Heaven forbid there is actually discussion of alternatives where, even if someone takes to outlying position just to be a counterpoint, there is at least consideration of all alternatives. One thing should be clear - in applying the "found" funds, the BoE should either follow current policy, or update or write new ones. Money should not be spent, or even returned to the public just because some folks yell louder than others. I think "punting" was the correct action in this case, as the state in their wisdom(not) gave BoE's all of four days to decide what to do with the money, which itself was not fiscally responsible. If the Gov just wanted the people to get the money without any decisions, he could have just sent rebate checks, right? But if he wanted a decision to be made, then give the people time to comment and their elected representitives time to act. Keep the comments coming - for now, this is probably the best forum to get info to the board where everyone can see it.
westfieldfriend July 23, 2011 at 09:31 PM
This really was an opportunity for the board to show appreciation to the community who has continually stepped up when asked. Even if they agreed to give back a small portion of the money and used the rest towards the schools would have gone a long way. I am extremely disappointed in the two newly elected members for not voting along with Mr. Finn and Mr. Slater. It is also extremely disheartening to see that Ms. Cary is continuing with her business as usual instead of making changes as she said during her campaign. This was an opportunity for her to prove herself as well. Maybe next time the voters will see that status quo really doesn't work.
Carla Menger July 24, 2011 at 12:24 PM
Very sad day for Westfield residents when 7 out of 9 elected officials are so drunk with power they deny taxpayers some relief today.
NR9 July 24, 2011 at 11:31 PM
@Carla Menger - You seem to have only considered one side of the issue. Here's the other way to look at it.... Very HAPPY day for Westfield residents when 7 out of 9 elected officials are so concerned about our town's CHILDREN that they want to hire more teachers and improve the teacher-to-student ratio for our already overstuffed classrooms. It would be great if we could elect people who would significantly reduce our property taxes. But then we'd have less services and people would be complaining that we don't have enough police officers, fire fighters, teachers, people to plow the snow, etc. I'm not saying any one of the two positions is necessarily "more right" or "more wrong" than the other. I simply don't have enough first-hand knowledge of the extent to which the town's budget is running "fat" or "lean" (though I suspect it is more on the "lean" side). But, to view this as you have, "giving money to the taxpayers" vs. "not giving money to the taxpayers," paints a much more simplistic view of what's going on. There is/was another side to the issue that you failed to consider in your conclusion/commentary. They are not looking to "deny taxpayers some relief" just for the sake of it. They are looking to use the money where they think it is very much needed in the school system. Good points could probably be argued on both sides of this issue.
Carla Menger July 25, 2011 at 01:50 PM
Stop putting lipstick on the pig NR9- Obviously its a happy day to get money for our schools- But it would be a happier day if the funds were distributed fairly to all stakeholders who are all "equally" concerned. Seniors like me who had kids with 30 in their classes (and are leading great lives) included.
Robert E. lewis August 22, 2011 at 02:11 PM
Bob Lewis, My wife and I have been Westfield residents since 1978, our three children had been through with college when we moved here so we have supported the town's taxes with out being a burden to it. Now in our Eighty's were finding it harder to get by on a fixed income even though I work part time. Getting a little tax relief from this recent state give back would help us stay here in our home. Since the BOE has already formed it's budget this is like found money so why not help those who have supported you for the last thirty three years stay in their homes. Thank you for the tremendous job you have done. Katherine & Robert Lewis
Steven G August 22, 2011 at 07:12 PM
Mr. and Mrs. Lewis- I agree with you 100% but it looks like only 2 Board Members (Fann and Slater) were the only ones to be listening.
NR9 August 22, 2011 at 07:34 PM
@Mr and Mrs. Lewis and Steven G. Governor Christie SLASHED $4,200,000 from the school budget. He later RESTORED $1,700,000 of what had been slashed, leaving the school budget still behind by $2,500,000. If, however, Governor Christie had restored the full $4,200,000 that was slashed and then provided another $1,700,000, then I suppose "found money" could be an appropriate term to use. But, that was not the case.
Steven G August 22, 2011 at 09:35 PM
@NR9- always an excuse..... but the score remains: BOE- $1.7 MYN TAXPAYERS 0


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