Questions Come in Bunches on First Day of Cap

John Mooney | July 15, 2010
Convert to charter? Send students to Utah? Write to the Governor? School leaders across NJ contemplate new educational environment

Day one of Cap 2.0 and more than a dozen suburban school leaders from across New Jersey gathered in an East Brunswick conference to, well, lament.

What happens to the labor contracts already signed and sealed with salary increases of 3 or 4 percent, well above the new cap?

What about those notorious special education costs that now remain under the cap, and a system that one superintendent said makes it more cost-effective to send a student to Utah than to her county special services school?

And in districts that largely have eschewed charter schools, a proposition unheard until now was raised: Would it be cheaper for their schools to convert to charter schools?

It was more questions than answers at the monthly meeting of the trustees of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the state’s predominant suburban school organization.

Reps Raise Many Issues

Meeting yesterday at the East Brunswick school administration building, the representatives from districts like Summit, Leonia, the Chathams, Princeton and Glen Ridge opined for the better part of three hours about the brave new world they stepped into this week with Gov. Chris Christie’s signing of the new 2 percent cap on school, municipal and county property taxes.

“The effective date is immediate, for your next budget,” said Lynne Strickland, the coalition’s longtime director, reading from the legislation.

Coupled with Christie’s deep cuts in state aid for next year — which for some around the table means elimination of virtually all of their state aid — much of the talk centered on labor contracts and special education, probably the two biggest cost drivers in school budgets.

David Abbott, superintendent of Marlboro schools, said his district recently settled a contentious teachers’ contract with annual raises in the 4 percent range, good enough for the old 4 percent cap.

But even with concessions in healthcare benefits, “we’re starting in a $3.1 million hole right there,” said Abbott, the coalition’s president. “Can I write a letter to the Governor about that?”

As Christie and legislators negotiated in Trenton over the extent of the cap, at one point 2.5 percent, then 2.9 percent, one superintendent said she was negotiating with a local and was close to settlement on a 2.5 percent raises.

When the final 2.0 percent cap was announced, “we had to reopen the discussion,” she said.

Concern Over Contract Limits

Much of the concern is over a provision not yet signed into law but promoted by Christie that would give the state power to limit all contract raises to a set level, presumably 2.0 percent to match the cap.

The proposal is part of the Governor’s so-called toolkit of measures that would help schools and municipalities bring down costs. Those proposals are to be taken up by the legislature this summer.

But Verona, for instance, recently settled a contract at 3.8 percent that will save the district $800,000 in healthcare costs and has allowed it to keep the tax increase this year to 1.1 percent, said superintendent Charles Sampson.

The new limit “basically says ‘don’t negotiate well,’” he said. “The reality is we could give you a 2 percent contract, but it could cost more than a 3.8.”

‘Labor War’?

And as scores of districts are now in negotiation under the new limits, what do they say to their unions who cite the older contracts with higher raises in the district next door that did not
face the same limits?

“If we are going to have straight percentages in our contracts,” said Jan Furman, superintendent of Northern Valley regional schools in Bergen County, “we better be talking about a toolkit
or we’ll have labor war, big time.”

Furman’s biggest complaint, though, was over a special education system that she said provides all the wrong incentives. She told the story of the student placed in a residential program in Utah, which through negotiation with parents was less expensive than the Bergen County special services schools a couple of towns away.

“Somehow we need to educate the public that we are making business decisions about where their children are placed,” she said. “The system is inherently wrong.”

As the meeting moved on, the topics grew wide-ranging. Strickland, the organization’s director, said one district is considering withholding payment of tuition and transportation costs for students to attend magnet schools in the county vocational district, contending it’s not a state mandate.

“These things are happening, these conversations are occurring,” said Strickland.

Glen Ridge made news recentlywhen it announced it would consider all options for saving money, including converting its own public schools to charter schools. Abbott in Marlboro said
that was a discussion he had with his board as well.

Elisabeth Ginsburg, Glen Ridge’s board president, said it came from voters who looked at their property taxes — averaging $16,000 a year — and public schools that were no longer getting any help from the state.

“We had some quite eloquent voters stand up and say, basically, ‘we’re screwed,’” she said. “They asked us what we’re doing to explore all these areas.”