The Verona Board of Education, I believe, is charged with ensuring our schools are run properly. To do that, we must have strong community support for education, a sound long-term strategy for success, and very effective leadership. However, in order to properly accomplish these goals, we must navigate a never-ending series of issues, pitfalls, and unexpected speed bumps. The most difficult obstacles to address are the ever-shifting bureaucratic mandates and financial requirements of the state and federal governments. These changes to legislation, developed far beyond our locale, can wreak havoc with our planning, budgeting and strategy.
There are two examples of this on the legislative front. Senate bill S-295 requires all Board of Education members to undergo background checks (a good idea). Any candidate convicted of certain crimes would not be allowed to serve. This bill passed the state Assembly 80-0, unanimously. However, this would not apply to municipal, county or state politicians. It’s hard to believe that Board of Education members–no matter what the kudos–are somehow more important than state senators or assemblymen.
Assembly bill A-2772 will force school districts that negotiate wage freezes or other union concessions to use those savings only to prevent layoffs. Savings cannot be used for tax relief or to fund any other educational need. This one leaves me completely speechless, so I’ll leave it to our citizens to determine what the rationale could possibly be for this bill.
On the finance front, you’ve certainly read about the $400 million Race to the Top aid that New Jersey did not qualify for. The fact is, even if New Jersey did qualify for this funding, there would have been minimal benefit to Verona. We were given approximate figures of $25,000 per year, for four years. However, the money would have been limited to specific uses only and accompanied by additional administrative requirements. The result would have diverted our focus from our strategic plan and required additional cost to us. The amount of media and political coverage this funding received, when it was of little (if any) benefit to towns like Verona, was amazing.
The $268 million in federal education aid (part of a $26 billion federal stimulus bill) was very similar. New Jersey was awarded the money, and following Trenton’s allocation based on need, Verona was awarded a one-time, $47,000 grant. Again, the money could only be used for very specific purposes (job protection). That’s difficult to do with so little money and with a one-time payment. How would we sustain the employee next year without the money? Only via increased property taxes.
There was incessant media coverage on these stories since “free” money always generates catchy headlines and politicians can fall over themselves to deliver good news. In late summer, Rep. Bill Pascrell sent a flier to every home in town advertising how he helped route $5.5 million in school aid to Verona. The only issue was he didn’t–that money went to Essex County Vocational School. His office said it was a simple mistake that caused the error. However, there was no correction from his office–only the original “free money” headline.
A few weeks ago, we were notified of a $100,000 increase in our annual payment into the New Jersey public pension system. Every town in the state was hit with this unbudgeted mandate. The pension system is designated and run by the state and we do not have any say in it except to contribute to the bill. Our budget must be prepared in April for the coming July 1 fiscal year–no secret to Trenton. Is it possible that Trenton didn’t know the pension system was in dire straits (impossible to believe) or that they just didn’t care?
I attended a forum where then Gov. Corzine spoke about Education funding. I asked the governor, and Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy, if we could create some metrics to shows how well (or poorly) managed each school district was. The state could focus legislation on the districts that do a poor job and allow successful ones to continue doing the things that lead to success. Corzine said it was impossible because every school district has very different needs. If that were the case, why is legislation the same for every town? If we properly negotiate contracts, contain our costs, define and follow sound strategy, why does the state constrain us the same as it does for towns that fail in so many ways? Ms. Davy said she’d like to hear more about our ideas but her office never responded to phone messages and e-mails I sent.
To understand the enormity of what all this means, consider that one-third of the state budget is dedicated to “education”. That’s about $10 billion of the $30 billion annual state budget. The chart below (from the New Jersey Department of Education Web site) illustrates what the money is used for. You will not find anything directly related to math or science, other than about 7 cents on the dollar for special education. I contend this $10 billion is really funding social programs, not funding education. Worse, 90% of that money goes to only 30% of the schools. The other 70% of the state, Verona included, split the last 10% left.
What concerns me the most is the continuing call to “consolidate” and to take away local control of our school and municipal budgets. In every scenario, we lose. Our tax money would be pooled with other towns and a bureaucrat will decide where and how that money would be spent. We enjoy that model in county, state and federal government. The Star Ledger reported how much money the state grants to each town in aid, given the income taxes paid. In Verona, we received about 7 cents on the dollar for all we pay in income taxes. The rest went to benefit other places. That was before they cut our school aid from $1.4 million to $70,000 per year.
New Jersey is essentially broke. Trenton’s eyes are now on our property tax dollars. Right now, 80 cents of every property tax dollar we pay is used only to benefit Verona–our town and schools. The other 20 cents goes to Essex County. I see nothing good in sending my property tax money to a politician (or worse, an appointee I don’t get to vote for) who has no accountability to our community –and who will take our money and decide how it will be shared with other towns.
We are most successful when we determine what’s best for our own community. Local government control may cost slightly more for some things, but in the end, the overall quality of what we get for our tax dollar far exceeds any alternative.
As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for. I believe our community strongly supports our education system. Our staff is strong and our leadership is very effective. Our costs, by comparison, are very low. But most of all, in Verona, we control our own budgets and goals.
John Quattrocchi is the president of the Verona Board of Education.