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Officials: School Funding, Structure Should Be Investigated

First-ever summit gets ball rolling, slowly.

The investigation of a school district reconfiguration and possible changes to the tax formula will be pursued after elected officials voted to move forward in seeking a change to the Western Morris region’s school structure.

Mayors, committeepersons, school board presidents and vice presidents, and superintendents–25 in total–from Washington Township, the Chesters and Mendhams came together on Tuesday night at Mendham High School for the first-ever education summit.

The marathon meeting, which lasted more than four hours and included nearly 100 audience members to start, was moderated by former education commissioner Dr. William Librera. After many members of the panel made their stance known on a variety of issues and heard from the public, the group voted by majority to look into the possibility of two separate kindergarten through 12 school districts: one serving Washington Township, with the other serving both Chesters and Mendhams.

Also being considered for purposes of reconfiguration is a possibility brought forth by Mendham Township resident Greg Quam during the meeting, which proposed Washington Township to have one K-12 district, keep both K-8 districts serving the Chesters and Mendhams, and regionalize those four municipalities for one high school, serving grades nine through 12.

The group also voted by majority to come up with a variation of models of tax allocation to see how it would affect all five municipalities. Variations on altering the formula to split between per pupil cost and property tax (which is the current setting) will be studied and considered.

Members of the panel grew concerned that all the work would lead to conducting a feasibility study, which would cost tens of thousands of dollars to the municipalities involved.

James Button, the Mendham Township representative to the West Morris Regional Board of Education, spoke to the panel and said that he met with both Governor Chris Christie and acting Education Commissioner Chris Serf recently. Button said that after explaining the region’s situation to them, Cerf said, repeatedly, that he would “take care of” a feasibility study, if it came to that.

The group did not set a date or setting for a follow up meeting, and Librera recommended that nothing be set until all information becomes available.

anybodybutchristie June 15, 2011 at 05:51 PM
Mad, Could not have said it better myself. The issue is how schools are funded. Placing the burden property owners is a flawled system. A sales/comsumption tax would be more equitable.
MadInNJ June 15, 2011 at 06:10 PM
We already have a solution to the Property Tax problem, it's know as the state Income Tax. Unfortunately, NJ's Supreme Court has hijacked over 2/3 of the money to fund the 31 districts know as Abbotts leaving precious little for the other 600 districts, especially those in the northern suburbs. Suburban taxpayers need to stop their circular firing squads (councils and committees firing at BOEs, and vice-versa; regional districts bickering about who pays more, etc.), and collectively train our fire on Trenton.
anybodybutchristie June 15, 2011 at 06:43 PM
No matter how it is distributed, the percentage of state income taxes used for education isn't enought to cover the state's education needs. There is a fundemental issue of using income taxes to pay for education. A consumption based tax is more fair because it is more closely tied to those contribute and benefit. A family with 4 kids (requiring education) would on average consume more than a DINK or senior couple.
wt-taxpayer June 15, 2011 at 07:02 PM
getting back to the article and the crux of the problem - 1) the school boards presented their ideas in a vacuum. they have a disconnect with the people that fund them. they didn't present a timeframe for changing or their analyses because they are going to get a paycheck regardless of what is done (or not done). its time to put the hammer down and hold them accountable. its no wonder they have clandestine meetings outside the perview of the public eye and hold their elections on odd days, subject to their own rules. 2) the governing bodies present at the meeting do not hold sway over the school boards that they fund through the budgets they construct and, furthermore, cannot even request they answer to the public - because they have a line of authority that almost runs parallel to the municipal, county and regional governments. something about this meeting stunk - and it was because they were not talking about 'the 800 pound gorilla' in the room - namely that the system that put them in power is the real problem... and they aren't going to change the feeding trough unless forced to. 3) the discussion about separating wt from m&c towns/twps is only a 'smoke and mirrors' discussion - never really getting to the heart of the way things operate. we all want to lower our property taxes as it is not sustainable- and this was not the focus, this was not discussed - and i dare say, it will never be brought up by the people at the feeding trough.
Thomas Lotito June 15, 2011 at 07:03 PM
It doesn't matter who pays what or how much. Mendham pays more because their property values are higher than Washington Twp. The only thing that makes sense is one K-12 district for the 5 towns. We will all save literally millions of dollars, which could be put towards property tax relief by having one administration to over see the whole system. This is the future for the school systems of NJ. Anything else, is regressive. I don't expect Mad or Nedd to get it, two supporters of excess spending in the schools. The excise consumption tax will never work either. nor will any plan that raises taxes here in Long Valley.
MadInNJ June 15, 2011 at 07:28 PM
First, I'd like to see how you come up with "millions saved." Second, assuming you could get to at least $2M, that would be a combined savings of a little more than 2%! Big Savings? So yes, $2M is a lot of money, but when you stack it up against the $95M of combined spending, it's a drop in the bucket. You need to demand more of the income Taxes you send to Trenton. According to NJ, the combined taxpayers of the WM School District paid about $145M in Income Taxes in 2008. Remembering that an Income Tax was added to the state constitution to fix the Property Tax problem, how much of that pile of money did the four school districts get back???!! Even half would cover the majority of the cost of educating your kids and provide a very nice Tax Cut!
MadInNJ June 15, 2011 at 07:33 PM
When you add the Income Tax money to all the Property taxes that are collected (total - over $20B), it is more than sufficient. The problem is the distribution, and the rampant waste of money by many of the Abbott districts, which get over 2/3rds of the money. Yet the NJ Supremes believe they are still being short changed, and the court has just ordered the state to send another $500M down the rat hole.
Thomas Lotito June 15, 2011 at 08:04 PM
Mad, I don't disagree with anything you're saying, however the story is about school structure in Menham Chester & Long Valley. I'm willing to bet that school admin. salaries in the five towns are more than 2 million, heck that's cheap, LV K-8 spends more than that. My assertion of one K-12 district is a more plausible scenario than yours will ever be. Good luck, trying to get back you income taxes from the Bolsheviks that permeate the landscape in NJ.
MadInNJ June 15, 2011 at 08:30 PM
The cost of administration is definitely more than $2M, but you said you could easily CUT "millions!" I would guess that you would agree that the new regional district would need a superintendent, someone in charge of curriculum, principals for each school, and support staff for the above. So while I'm sure there are some economies of scale, I would bet that it isn't even $2M, and frankly, to even to begin to make a dent you'd need to find 10% savings, or about $9.5M. But, I'm always willing to review any proposal that someone has to save $$, so feel free to detail for all.
MadInNJ June 15, 2011 at 08:36 PM
P.S. The real cost drivers in any school district is the number of people, the per person costs, and the rapid increase in those costs. And the per person costs = salary (growing at 4% or more for years) + benefits (which have been growing at 10 - 20% per year for years). Long term, the way to hold the growth down is to insist that the BOE negotiate realistic contract terms, not the give-aways that heave been happening for the past decade or more. And if you want your property taxes to go down, you need to demand a fairer share of the Property Tax Relief Fund, aka our Income Taxes.
Thomas Lotito June 15, 2011 at 08:51 PM
Mad, administration is more than a superintendent & principals. There are 30-40 administrators in the WT K-8 school system. There are secretaries, business admin. dean of students, secretary of math, social worker psychologists, heck there's even a $99,000 administrative janitor. (The BOE is very clever hiding these positions from public view). I'm sure this is duplicated in all of the other schools too, and I bet it will exceed your 9.5 million number. I agree with the rest of what you said, good post.
MadInNJ June 15, 2011 at 09:21 PM
Ask for a complete roster of employees, their titles and contracted salaries. That is all publicinformation. Half the positions you mention are not Adminstration, so I would doubt that there are 30 - 40 people covered under admin. According to the budget, your admistrative costs are about $2M. Note - I realized I forgot to include the WT K-8 district in my total calc. The total budgets for the current five school districts that are proposed to be merged into one are over $135M! So a 2% savings would require a net reduction of $2.7M, and 10% would be $13.5M. I would be stunned if you could find 180 people to eliminate (figure $13.5M / $75,000 per employee for salaries and benefits (avg.)) in a combined regional school district. That's probably more than the total number of employees in one of the two HS.
Joseph Keyes June 15, 2011 at 10:08 PM
Tuesday night’s summit was a revealing event. 1. I didn’t realize the animosity between the Mendhams and Chesters was as strong as demonstrated last night. As a young man, I remember reading about their respective boroughs and townships merger explorations—that was 40 years ago. 2. I liked the “meeting of the mayors idea,” but observed that WT seems to be viewed as a “poor relative” by the other four municipalities. 3. Though municipal shared services was mentioned, I was disappointed that new funding ideas were not discussed more. Re-calculating formulae based on the same funding sources will still produce winners and losers. Our mayor drove his point home re state funding dollars, but as was pointed out by others, that money is vulnerable to cuts. 4. The two K-12 district approach was interesting, Ken Short commented that maybe we would be better off with one K-12 district. Otherwise, WT may consider “divorcing” MT/MB and CT/CB and explore its options independently? 5. After almost 4 hours, Dr. Librera called for a vote that frankly left the entire panel and a tired public with a big “huh?” hanging in the air. He later conceded that a continuance would be in order, but no date was set and no agenda for such was discussed. 6. During the public comment portion, it became apparent that parents with kids currently in the system had a different agenda than those who do not, e.g. funding sources vs. funding allocations.
Thomas Lotito June 15, 2011 at 10:13 PM
Mad, There are a lot more administrators than one would think. I remember 3 psychologist salaries totaling 275K that was 2 years ago. I asked for administrator positions 2 years ago, the BOE was not forthcoming with all of the positions. All of the positions were hidden on different websites. Yes, if our admin costs are 2 million as you say, then you multiply that 5 BOE admins = 10 million. Makes sense to go to a regional K-12 with one admin. I don't have all of the numbers in front of me, I defer to you. Other things we can do to save money, outsource buses, janitors. turnover teachers before they are tenured.
Joseph Keyes June 15, 2011 at 10:21 PM
I agree with WT-T’payer’s perception that school boards seem to operate in their own reality at times, but last night’s meeting was a step towards changing that. Funding source realities were brought to the table only to be overridden by fund formula revaluation. WT is a Highlands district with 87% of its land protected/restricted, and has a different set of rules to play by than do MT/MB & CT/CB. I hope the school boards can come to see how current funding schemes are unsustainable.
MadInNJ June 15, 2011 at 11:01 PM
A school psychologist is not part of the administration. As I also noted, you can't eliminate the bulk of the administrators since you do need principals, secretaries and a few people in the central office to run what would be a very large district. So even if you net $1M, you'd see a less than 1% reduction in your tax bill. And if you live in the Mendhams or Chesters, you would basically see your ability to manage your district usurped by LV, because that's what happened with the WMHS district. The idea of a Regional School District is DEAD. And the chances that the state would let you go to two K-12 Districts (WT in one, and all the rest in the other) is probably 50/50, but WT would fight that idea like Hell because absorbing the full cost of Central would bump your taxes up significantly..
MadInNJ June 15, 2011 at 11:06 PM
The mayors should focus on merging their respective municpal operations. It would have a greater chance of reducing expenses. How big would a five town police department need to be? Ditto for public works, township/borough adminstrators, finacial officers, tax collectors, etc. And how much money could be saved with only a committee of only nine members rather than the five times whatever you have today.
Joseph Keyes June 16, 2011 at 02:18 AM
WT is already sharing police and first aid services with Calfon, has shared DPW projects with M.O. , and more. True, we need a lot more of this. but 73% of WT property taxes fund schools, and until the BOE(s) sit down with the municipal committee and address funding alternatives, that 800 lb gorilla will continue to sit at the center of any consolidation/merging discussions., while placing ever more pressure on township taxpayers.
anybodybutchristie June 16, 2011 at 02:20 AM
You are mixing apples and oranges. The money distributed to the Abbott districts doesn’t come from property taxes. My suggestion focuses on REPLACING school property taxes with a sales/consumption tax to more fairly distribute the burden of funding schools on those who most benefit.
MadInNJ June 16, 2011 at 02:26 AM
I clearly said that the bulk of the Abbott funding comes from our Income Taxes. Unless your "consumption" tax replaces, dollar-for-dollar, Income Taxes, it's just another tax increase that will primarily hit the suburbs, and the NJ Supremes will continue to siphon the bulk of the money and send it to the Rat Hole know as Abbott. Why not just distribute the money we are already paying in a fairer fashion?
MadInNJ June 16, 2011 at 02:27 AM
What is a "funding alternative?"
Joseph Keyes June 16, 2011 at 02:50 AM
Alternatives could include sales and use taxes, reallocation of available state and federal revenues, etch Michigan, for example funds it’s schools on a state level. In 2010, sales and use taxes paid for 37.8%, federal money 18%, and property taxes 14.5%. It would require a entirely new way of doing business for NJ. but few are happy with the way it’s done now.
Alice Jameson June 16, 2011 at 03:11 AM
Would I be correct in my presumption that the remaining 29.7% is drawn from income tax?
MadInNJ June 16, 2011 at 04:21 AM
The one problem that no one addresses with regard to an "alternate" funding source - Any money sent to Trenton is subject to control by NJ's Supreme Court. So for all that propose another funding scheme - How do you plan to stop the court from grabbing most of the money and sending to Newark, Camden, Asbury Park, et.al.??
Thomas Lotito June 16, 2011 at 11:30 AM
Mad, FYI WT BOE lists social workers and psychologists as administration. And like said earlier, a $99,000 janitor too. I disagree with you that "The idea of a Regional School District is DEAD." I'm also pretty sure that the state cannot mandate a that we deregionalize. It has to be done by the voters. Washington Twp. will never vote itself a tax increase, neither wood Chester or Mendham if the situation were in reverse.
Joseph Keyes June 16, 2011 at 01:28 PM
The remaining 29.7% is obtained from: Income tax 13.8% State Lottery 5.3% Other tax 5.5% General fund 0.2% Other funding 0.3% Keeping fund allocation balanced is not going to be an easy task. I believe downsizing the number of school districts is a good start. On a state level, it really will take a lot of compromise and, as one commenter mentioned in the DR, putting legislators back in the wheelhouse. Poorer districts are not going away and can’t nor should they be ignored. If the state takes on education seriously and responsibly, and these ideas need to begin at the state level, new solutions can be crafted. The devil is in the details and I think it’s appropriate to begin examining those details right now.
cv June 16, 2011 at 01:34 PM
Nothing is ever going to change beacuse the chesters and the mendhams think we are white trash. They dont get the fact that their homes are double in assessed value. They think we dont pay any taxes here. They think they are supporting us .
anybodybutchristie June 16, 2011 at 02:10 PM
When I look at my tax bills (Federal income, state income, local property taxes) the smallest is my state income tax bill. We are NEVER going to get more from the State. Chris Christie has reneged on his promises . The disproportionate distribution of State income taxes to the Abbott districts is a battle I'll let you fight. Good luck with that! I am talking about REPLACING what we pay in SCHOOL PROPERTY TAXES with a SALES/CONSUMPTION TAX!
cv June 16, 2011 at 02:40 PM
Face it we are hated by the chesters and the mendhams a proposal would have to be made in a way where they will save tax dollars otherwise I don not believe they will ever deal.
GettheFacts July 21, 2011 at 07:46 PM
It's doubtful that any consolidation will save money and mad has articulated it fairly well, however there are other reasons. 1. Guide Alignment/Re-alignment - when a group of school districts consolidate or regionalize there individual salary guides align to the highest guide in the newly formed district. So if WT or any other district pay's their teacher lower amounts on their guide than other districts in the consolidated district their salaries and benefits will be adjusted to align to the highest paying district included in the consolidation (this is current law). However it would happen even if it wasn't the law. 2. Transportation costs - Transportations costs would increase substantially especially in districts which currently do not provide courtesy busing. 3. Asset redistribution and alignment. To create or disassemble a regional all BOE assets within each constituent community must be identified and a distribution methodology established, or all liabilities continue to be the reponsibility of the joining district. So there are a number of issues to be considered and all of the three listed above would greatly overshadow any potential savings of a consolidated district. By the way these are not identified in the context of a consolidation study. Also another point to remember, NJ has the 4th best education system in the state. The solution is revising the funding system, we are not getting what we pay for. Go to http://fairschoolfunding.com/

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