Sussex Mayors think state education aid formula unfair to their towns

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:43

    SUSSEX COUNTY - While school boards and town officials struggle over defeated budgets and ever increasing property taxes, half of the state's $8-billion total school-aid budget is designated for 30 low-income "Abbot districts" statewide. The issue was a topic of the New Jersey Conference of Mayors in April. There are 600 school districts in New Jersey and $8 billion in state funding. But half of that money goes to the five percent of the districts that are designated as low-income. The other 570 districts are left to share the remaining $4 billion. "Here in Wantage, the school taxes represent 70 percent of our property taxes," said Wantage Mayor William DeBoer. "Our seniors are suffering the burden and the state of our schools is in jeopardy." The mayor said the imbalance is systemic and even extends to the state's Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act, one of the most comprehensive constructions programs in the nation. The act allows for 100 percent state funding of Abbott Districts and 40 percent funding for non-Abbott districts. "It is no secret," said Charles V. Reilly, president of the New Jersey School board Association in 2000, "that New Jersey over-relies on property taxes to fund public education. It is a situation that has existed for generations. It has been addressed by education advocates and the courts. Yet the problem exists to this day." The problem is getting worse, say town officials. And, said DeBoer, the public is responding by voting down budgets, as voters did this year in the High Point Regional and the Sussex-Wantage school districts. As Superintendent of Vernon Schools Anthony Macerino sees it, the aid Abbott districts receive is the result of years of court rulings that argued that less advantaged districts were unable to financially provide equal educational support to students. "The big problem with this is, how do you convince other districts, such as Vernon Township - or all of Sussex and Warren Counties for that matter - that we are able to pay?" said Macerino. "We do have the capability of generating additional school support because of our socio-economic state." But, he said, more fortunate communities should not suffer. Everyone, he said, should be responsible to pay his or her fair share across the board. DeBoer noted that four or five districts designated as Abbott districts should be revalued due to an economic upswing within their communities. Gov. James E. McGreevey is proposing the Fair and Immediate Relief Plan to shift taxation toward those most able to pay and easing the burden on seniors and middle-class taxpayers. The additional money would be placed into New Jersey's rebate program. "There are long days and tough decisions ahead of us," said McGreevey. "I ask you to envision a different New Jersey -- where senior citizens worry about seeing their grandchildren instead of whether they can pay their property taxes." McGreevey has also proposed legislation that would reduce the current three percent annual school budget cap to 2.5 percent and eliminate some state mandates placed on school districts. The N.J. School Baords Association opposes McGreevey's "millionaire tax plan," but applauds the governor's efforts to support school districts. "State decisions, not local policies, are the major cause of New Jersey's property tax problems,' said Edwina M. Lee, executive director of the NJSBA. "The state could provide a large degree of tax relief by using the additional income tax revenue to comply with its own school funding laws. These laws have not been fully funded for the past three years." DeBoer believes a redistribution of funds at the state level could alleviate the problem, but concedes that he doesn't see that happening soon.