Area school officials working to repeal ‘cap' laws

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:45

    SPARTA-Sussex County educators and elected officials are scrambling in a last-minute attempt to repeal a new school "cap" law that many believe could be the most devastating piece of legislation to impact education in New Jersey. The legislation (S-1701), signed into law by former Gov. James McGreevey in July, significantly restricts both how and the amount communities can spend to educate their children, county school officials said. "The law takes autonomy from the public school districts and replaces it with Big Brother," said Ronald Wolfe, president of the Sussex County Association of Schools Business Officials and assistant superintendent for the Sparta School District. "Trenton is taking more and more control over how you can spend your budget." Proponents of the bill say the legislation will provide short-term property tax relief and greater accountability to local voters on budgets approved annually in April school elections. The new law requires school districts to reduce their maximum school budget surplus to 3 percent in 2004-2005 and to 2 percent in 2005-2006, and requires the excess surplus to be used for property tax relief. "It all comes down to property tax relief," said Linda Nick, Sparta Middle School principal, while addressing a Parent Teacher Organization meeting this week. "I hate to see kids be a scapegoat because of our property tax problem." Wolfe said the new law was pushed through the state Assembly and Senate in 10 days and many legislators hadn't read the bill in its entirety. "It was sold as property tax relief," said Wolfe. "Who wouldn't be for that? It's like being for the American flag or apple pie." Wolfe said Trenton is operating under a $4 billion deficit and that the new cap laws attempt to portray public schools as the enemy in the property tax debate. "It's tough to take direction from Trenton when clearly its fiscal house is out of order," he said. "It would be one thing if Trenton was the model for fiscal policy. That would be fine. But, that is exactly opposite of what is true." Under the new law, school budgets cannot grow by more than 2.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is greater. Previously, the law limited spending to 3 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever was greater. "It's not good news for the people of New Jersey," said Thomas Morton, superintendent of the Sparta School District. "The bill is trying to squeeze school districts to the point where there won't be anything left to squeeze. If it isn't modified, it will be devastating." Wolfe said already more than a dozen legislators have introduced legislation to repeal or amend the law. Sen. Robert Littell, (R-24), who voted for the new law, said budgets should be left in the hands of taxpayers and not local school boards. Based on numerous concerns within the community, Littell said he has drafted legislation to change parts of the current bill. "The school budget cap law is by no means the perfect solution to the property tax crisis, however, it was a part of the only solution available at the time," said Littell. "If property taxpayers are willing to pass school budgets that increase costs by going beyond the caps in place, realizing that their property taxes will go up, at least they are the ones making that decision." Sussex County education officials fear the cap levels come at a time when the federal and state governments have imposed some of the most advanced requirements on academic skills. A school budget with a 2.5 cap, school officials said, will result in larger class sizes; fewer teachers; a reduced ability to provide transportation; parents paying higher costs for extra-curricular activities; and a moratorium on facility improvements regardless of need. For example, Nick said, Sparta could expect to lose up to 14 teachers from grades K-8 and electives at the high school level before next year's budget is even voted on if the bill isn't repealed. "We pride ourselves on students coming first, but students are going to get hurt first," said Nick. "We'll lose all the ground we've made over the last couple of years. We're scared. This is a real bill. This is law." The stricter administrative spending limits may fail to take into account the needs and circumstances of individual school districts, said Barry Worman, Sussex County superintendent of schools. He said, for example, a child with special education needs moving into a new community might require an additional $50,000 in educational and transportation services from a new school district. These costs, he said, -- from Hampton to Vernon -- don't fluctuate regardless of the surplus amassed by each school. "When some of these things hit, it will be a problem for some districts," said Worman. "The bill puts a lot of restriction on the local school districts. But, we have to implement the law. We have to be a team player for the legislators."