Sweeney Says He’s Ready to Waive 2% Tax Cap for Hard-Hit School Districts

On Saturday, school board leaders lined up to quiz Senate president, some of whose answers were well-received but others not
Senate President Steve Sweeney addresses NJ Schools Boards Association’s delegate assembly.

A school board member from Warren County asked whether school regionalization would be pushed on districts against their will. Another from Clifton pleaded for more state controls on exorbitant special education costs.

And a school trustee from Pemberton wanted to know if arguably the second-most powerful politician in the state would please not force further cuts in his district’s strapped budget.

The three were part of a big crowd of school board leaders before whom Senate President Steve Sweeney on Saturday laid out his latest plans for their districts, in both the short and long term.

And he got an earful.

Speaking before the New Jersey School Boards Association’s semi-annual delegate

assembly at Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, Sweeney made news by announcing he would quickly move a bill to loosen the financial reins on districts that have been hit hardest by state aid cuts.

“It was never the intent to hurt any schools,” Sweeney said.

But over the course of an hour taking questions and comments, Sweeney also heard about other topics on the minds of school board presidents and their members.

Here are a few of the takeaways from the gathering:

Lifting cap on property tax

The biggest news was Sweeney’s announcement that he would try to ease the hurt on nearly 200 districts that have been hit hardest by the state’s phase-out of so-called “adjustment” or hold-harmless aid, starting last year.

The phase-out of the adjustment aid was a key piece of the Murphy administration’s and Democratic-led Legislature’s strategy to fully fund the state’s school finance formula. But it has led to both winners and losers among school districts, forcing layoffs and deep program cuts in many of the latter.

Attendees at gathering of New Jersey Schools Boards Association line up to question Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Until now, Sweeney had been steadfast in his tough-medicine approach. But on Saturday, he said he would propose waiving the state’s 2% cap on local property-tax increases for districts facing cuts. The waiver would allow local school boards to approve an extra tax increase beyond the cap of up to the amount cut by the state, without the approval of local voters, as is now required.

The announcement received a smattering of applause, and Sweeney jokingly lamented that he thought it would be better received. “I thought you guys would be buzzing about this,” he said. “I’m not off to a great start.”

At first blush, school board members said they were worried the waiver would just shift responsibility and put the onus on them to come up with the revenue when the state was unwilling to do so.

Susan Cullen, a board member from Great Meadows, said the state had made a deal with taxpayers with its 2% cap on tax levy increases. Asking school boards to now vote to exceed that limit came with its perils. “We’re going back on a promise,” she said.

School regionalization gains momentum

Perhaps even more than school funding, Sweeney’s push for school regionalization was on the minds of school leaders Saturday, with several asking how the process would work, what the next steps are, and how long they would take.

As part of his “Path to Progress” blueprint, Sweeney has proposed a broad plan to consolidate the state’s nearly 600 school districts into a wide range of forms to help bring about efficiencies and savings, from unified K-12 districts to even countywide districts.

Sweeney said at Saturday’s meeting that he had made some progress, including a series of meetings in Salem County where he said he has won support for at least a feasibility study of such a county-wide district.

“There is a school in Salem County that graduates 13 kids a year,” he said. “It’s not just about finances but efficiencies and making them run better. . . Is it efficient, does it make sense?”

Home rule in New Jersey has long been sacrosanct, but whether driven by financial constraints or other factors, there was a sense in the room that consolidating and regionalizing districts wasn’t such a far-fetched idea anymore. Several attendees asked about how and when feasibility studies would be funded. One school board member asked how long it would all take.

“The world does not come to an end,” Sweeney said. “We need to find out a better way to do things.”

Speaking bluntly

 The third big topic was special education, a favorite for Sweeney as a father of a child with special needs. And he reiterated his promise that the state would fully fund districts’ costs for a child when they reach certain cost thresholds well above the averages.

When pressed, Sweeney said he could envisage the state fully funding so-called extraordinary costs within three to five years. The state now picks up about 64% of those extra costs exceeding thresholds that start at $40,000 for a student.

“We should not be looking at these children as dollars but as humans,” he said, this time receiving sustained applause.

On most topics, Sweeney assuaged concerns as best he could, and deferred more than a few to his staff. But on a couple of topics, the Senate president spoke bluntly, not necessarily pleasing his audience.

Sweeney said he would not relax standards and requirements for school bus-drivers, for instance, despite a shortage in many districts. And he wasn’t much help to a school board member from Branchburg who asked him if the state would ever support waiving “prevailing wage” requirements for employees in general to help defray costs for school districts .

Sweeney, a labor union leader by trade, didn’t mince words in rejecting that one.

“I am an ironworker, I believe in a prevailing wage,” he said.