School administrators battle state budget law

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:53

    SUSSEX COUNTY-Parents and educators from across Sussex County flooded into McNiece Auditorium for a rally with the purpose of gaining support to repeal the state's new school budget reduction law, which went through the legislature as a bill labeled S-1701. Among the more controversial articles of the legislation that was passed in July of this year are severe limitations on the size and use of surpluses, caps on administrative costs, and restrictions on line-item transfers within school budgets and second-ballot finance questions during elections. In the past, if a district saved money in one area, it could apply the savings somewhere else. Surpluses could be used for emergency repairs, such as a bad boiler or leaky roof. Now, districts are required to apply most surpluses to lowering taxes. The result, educators say, is that they are not allowed to keep enough money on hand to deal with real emergencies. And, they say, the cap on budget increases does not allow for normal salary increases. Assemblyman Guy Gregg, one of two local legislators voting against the law, was represented by Legislative Director Kristi-Victoria Petrides. "It is the removal of a lot of local autonomy," said Petrides. "This is simply a bad law," said Hampton Superintendent of Schools Everett Burns, who conducted the meeting. "The law didn't receive a lot of coverage because of other high profile legislation known as the Highlands Bill," he went on, adding that there was "very little time to realize the real impact of it." Petrides said that the bill was introduced but was not available for review by the legislators, who passed it without realizing its full impact. She said the bill went through many incarnations,, and the final version that was passed does "not resemble the original in any way, shape, or form." She went on to say, "There is no other adjective than ‘egregious' to describe parts of this bill. It was sold a tax relief measure, but its purpose was to help re-elect Governor McGreevy." Jim Dougherty, president of the New Jersey School Boards Association spoke passionately. "It is a nightmare," he said. "Legislators sold this as a property tax relief measure." But, he said, the real impact is that "there will be no state aid available. It will cause jobs to be lost. How can the cap be imposed without cutting staff?" Giselda Mintz, president of the Sussex County School Boards Association, also expressed concern, saying, "The legislators did not have enough information or enough time to review so that they could learn for themselves the ramifications of the bill. Now, if something happens to the roof, we'll have to take out a loan to repair it. Somehow they're going to have to find a different source of revenue to finance public education." Councilwoman Ginny Gorman of Hamburg said the bill will "cause districts to reduce the budget cap, will not allow them to save to carry over a certain amount to accumulate monies for a larger expenditure the coming year or to allow for a special needs student." She said the bill will also lead to the loss of courtesy busing, will increase class size, eliminate of class trips, reduce programs and eliminate fine arts, music, and sports. "We could lose kindergarten since it is not mandated in New Jersey," she warned. Other anticipated consequences are loss of after school programs, reduction of evening classes, cuts in pro fessional development, and less frequent replacement of texts. Petrides' final comment was: "It is a bad bill, dressed up in a frilly skirt, and sold under the pretense of a spending cap. It has to do with autonomy." The audience was encouraged to share the information with their colleagues and to contact state officials, beginning with Governor Richard Codey, and continuing through to county officials.