Budget cap law lacked "reality check"

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:16

    WEST MILFORD-It's the law and the West Milford Board of Education is going to have to follow it. The only question is how. Tuesday night, the board received a briefing on state law S-1701, the "Budget Cap Law" enacted in the spring ostensibly to save property taxpayers money by limiting spending by school districts. Providing the briefing, and some insights into problems with the new law was Cathie Sousa, a field service representative from the New Jersey School Boards Association. The core problem is that while school boards must follow the law "the regulations supporting the legislation have not yet been written or released. "It's almost as if there wasn't a strong reality check on this," Sousa said of the new law which was pushed through from its June 10 inception to passage in three weeks. Asked about the legislative intent of the new law, the board was told: "It was political. We lobbied against it," said Sousa. She said the legislative intent was to show how much they saved communities in property taxes. The reality was quite different due to provisions within the law. "Bergen County has 78 school districts. Less than half realized any savings because they had more than a three percent surplus. "We were just barely above the three percent so there was no adjustment (here) for local taxes," observed Stephen Cea, the district's business administrator. "In some districts the average taxpayer had less than $1 in tax relief," Sousa told the panel. Many provisions in the law require budgetary approvals from the state education commissioner. "Some people are upset because it's taking away the rights of the local school boards," she said. "It does take control from the school board and puts it in the hands of the commissioner," Cea observed. The new law is described on the state legislature's Website as revising the calculation of budget caps and reducing allowable surplus for public school districts. Its primary sponsors were Democrat Senators Wayne R. Bryant of Camden, Raymond J. Lesniak and Joseph Cryan, both of Union. Cryan is the assistant majority leader in the state senate. Among items affected by the law are collective bargaining, education programming, financial operations, repairs, creating new staff positions and administrative overhead costs. "The budget cap has been three percent since he 1997-98 school year," Sousa told the board. "Now the legislative cap is two-point-five percent or the CPI, whichever is greater. The CPI is the Consumer Price Index and she said law mandates the entire state use a formula that averages the CPIs for the Philadelphia and New York City markets. School Superintendent Robert Gilmartin asked if the school boards association was drafting amendments. "We're still analyzing survey input" from the various school boards, to gauge their reactions, Sousa replied. She said amendments will be proposed, but it's unlikely they will be acted upon before Nov. 15. "You can wonder why," she said, in an oblique reference to the date on which Democrat Governor Jim McGreevey has said he will resign.