Time Runs Out to Use School Aid Windfall for Property Tax Relief

Administration deadline forces tax relief decision by tomorrow, many districts will take a pass

When Gov. Chris Christie last week detailed his final state aid figures for 2011-2012, they included an extra $150 million for suburban school districts — money the districts were encouraged to use for property tax relief.

The governor should have added, “And hurry.”

In a follow-up memo late last week, the administration indicated that districts would need to move by tomorrow if they wanted to add the extra money to next year’s tax levy. Doing so would require local boards to meet beforehand, with 48 hours notice.

“That would mean that public notice would have to be issued last week on Thursday or Friday,” said Earl Kim, superintendent of Montgomery schools.

“As you can see, it was practically impossible — certainly not possible to do in a well-considered way,” he said.

Fiscal Stability

That’s not to say some won’t try for the quick tax relief. But in a sampling of districts contacted over the weekend, Kim was like most school leaders, who said they were more likely to take measured approaches. Several mentioned moving the money into surplus for the time being to help provide some needed stability going into this year and the next.

“We need to look at the fiscal stability issues first,” Kim said. “The past cuts combined with tax levy caps created instabilities that we are still working through.”

Marlboro school superintendent David Abbott said not only is there no time to put it into tax relief this year, but also even hiring back staff will be a heavy lift in time for the next school year.

Add in some wild cards like the federal government’s potential default on its debt and the impact that could have on local bonds, and Abbott said he’s not taking many chances.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen next year,” he said. “Better to have that money put away.”

Tight Timeline

The state’s memo sent to districts on Thursday laid out several options, including saving the money for 2012-2013 and even 2013-14. A spokesman for the state Department of Education said the direct tax relief remains the preference, but the administration knew the timeline was difficult.

“The administration wanted the districts to look at this as an opportunity, and while we realize there is not much time, we certainly thought it was worth a try,” said Justin Barra, the department’s new communications director.

Still, if districts do apply the money to the coming year’s budget, it will need approval of the state’s executive county superintendents. There is no deadline for those decisions, Barra said.

“We would encourage that if they decide to spend it this year that they do it in ways that drive student achievement,” he said.

When asked if that would mean only instructional programs and not items such as student transportation or extracurricular programs that were often victims of cuts last year, Barra said districts would be given wide latitude.

“These are decisions at the local level and we did not put additional restrictions,” he said.

Piscataway superintendent Robert Copeland is slated to get an additional $900,000, and he said it will help bring some budget relief to the year.

There is a chance to put it toward technology as well as maybe some new hiring to help bring down class sizes, he said. And putting it to surplus for now also will be considered.

“I’ll give my board some options, including to do nothing,” he said.

But first thing today, Copeland said he’ll place a call to the state’s office in Middlesex County. “I’m going to call the county superintendent and have them tell us what are our marching orders,” he said.