To the Editor:
I read the recent Advertiser article concerning High Point school board’s resolution to reject the efforts of the governing bodies of the five sending districts to switch the school board elections back from November to April which would restore the opportunity of voters to have input in the budget process. The letter stated the governing bodies actions were politically motivated going as far as a board member stating that it was “politics at its worst.”
To the contrary, the action had nothing to do with politics. Rather it had everything to do with calling out the High Point administration and board of education for their failure to properly manage finances. High Point’s 14% tax levy increase in 2020 is better characterized as “financial planning at its worst.”
High Point has been aware for years of the impending decrease in state funding. They have also been aware of the need to make certain improvements to the facility. The superintendent has gone on the record at meetings acknowledging this. Yet, rather than properly adopting a long-term plan to address these issues, High Point raised the tax levy 14% in 2020 during a pandemic using what I believe is a skewed formula to bypass the cap bank statute that was designed to protect the public from significant raises in the tax levy necessary to support the school. It remains a legal issue whether High Point was permitted to include the reduction in their tax levy in years past to eclipse the six percent cap for the past three years that is permissible under the cap bank statute.
One board member stated in the Advertiser article “that taking money from the banked cap was a one-year thing. We can’t do that again.” This oversimplifies the action of the board because the superintendent’s budget presentation in 2020-2021 acknowledged that the tax levy was increasing over two million dollars in 2020-21 which obviously impacts future cap banks moving forward.
The board and administration allowed their capital improvement account to be depleted over a number of years rather than funding it to plan for necessary projects. The superintendent acknowledged that the capital reserve was allowed to be decreased to as little as $150,000, while at the same time planning for $700,000 in improvements in the 2020-21 budget year. It is unfortunate that the State has reduced aid to rural schools which clearly factors into this admittedly difficult situation, but in difficult times the taxpayers are owed better long-term financial planning on the part of High Point.
School budgets account for a majority of the property taxes collected from taxpayers from the five sending districts. Taxpayers relied upon a fiscally sound policy of capping the increase in tax levy to surrender their input on a school budget by originally agreeing to move the April election to November. Unfortunately, this decision has come back to haunt the taxpayers. High Point has gone through numerous business administrators in the recent past and the elected members of the board have also changed. Nonetheless, there has to be accountability to ensure that necessary policies are adopted to plan long term for the success of the school.
The superintendent has suggested the $28,000 price tag to educate a student isn’t a figure he likes to look at when discussing the budget, nor the fact that the student population has decreased significantly over the recent past. The sending districts took action in response to the school’s failure to properly plan long term. Municipalities go through the same process in adopting a budget each year and plan for years ahead to limit any increase in the tax levy. The schools should be asked to do the same. Respectfully, it is not a matter of politics, it is a matter of fiscal responsibility.
Kevin K. O’Leary
Editor’s note: O’Leary writes that “I am a member of the Lafayette Township Committee and currently serve as the deputy mayor. This letter is not submitted in that capacity but rather the opinions expressed herein are my own.”