The day after the historic school elections last April, Gov. Chris Christie called the rejection of nearly 60 percent of local budgets a wake-up call to the state.
Taxes were too high, spending was too high, and the defiant governor implored local municipal councils to give taxpayers a relief when they take a scalpel to those defeated budgets.
Two months later, it looks like it was closer to a butter knife in most cases, with relatively small cuts delivered, and in 30 of the 315 budgets, no cuts at all, according to new data released by the state Department of Education yesterday.
In the first public release of such data, the department provided a host of numbers to the financial impact of the unprecedented school votes this spring.
For instance, the biggest single cut was $7.6 million from Lakewood schools after that budget was rejected, representing close to 10 percent of the district’s proposed budget. In 19 districts, budgets were cut more than 5 percent.
But the vast majority of cuts were less than 3 percent of the proposed amounts, and half were below 2 percent. The average cut was 2.1 percent, with some of them miniscule. Bloomingdale’s council reduced the budget by just $10,000, Fredon less than $7,000.
And there were the 30 with no cuts at all, from large districts like Lenape Regional and Carteret to small ones such as Interlaken and Chesilhurst.
Still, overall, it saved $140.2 million in those towns, and reduced the overall school levy increase statewide—including approved budgets—from 4.8 percent before the vote to a preliminary figure of 3.7 percent now.
"Speaking to the $140 million, it’s a good start," said Mike Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman. “But on the other hand, it needs to go much further.”
He called the paucity of cuts in many districts "essentially a back-of-the-hand to those who voted against these budgets. We think it’s wrong, why do we even go through the exercise?"
He pressed the governor’s pending proposal to instead have a 2.5 percent cap on all spending and taxes, and only have votes when they exceeded that cap.
The New Jersey School Boards Association brought the opposite perspective, saying there was no deeper that councils could cut.
"In spite of the defeated budgets, they could only go so far" said Frank Belluscio, the association’s director. "There is a certain amount needed in the operation of schools, and when you have cuts in state aid like we have, you are forced to instead go back to the taxpayers."
But he was in agreement on one point: the questionable merits of the school votes in the first place.
"For this result, I’m not sure this was worth the effort from the taxpayers," he said.
The totals could still change some, as more than a dozen districts have final figures pending before the state commissioner of education. Most of them are cases where cuts could not be agreed upon or certified, leaving the decision to the state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler.
Six are outright appeals to Schundler that the council’s cuts were too deep: Brielle, Millstone, Pitman, Robbinsville, South Hackensack and Weymouth.
In those cases, Schundler is charged with evaluating whether the districts can still provide an adequate education as determined in the state’s school funding formula.