Marlboro schools played precisely by the rules this year, proposing a budget that would increase the local property tax levy by 4 percent, the current limit under the law.
Still, the voters didn’t go for it in the April election, and the municipal council cut another $680,000. On top of a $3.9 million cut in state aid, that amounted to 16 teaching positions lost.
But had Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed constitutional 2.5 percent cap been in place, they likely wouldn’t have been done just yet. In that case, Marlboro would have needed to find as much as another $250,000 to take out of its budget.
“You keep your fingers in the dikes, but there are only so many fingers,” said David Abbott, superintendent of Marlboro schools.
As New Jersey moves quickly this week from debates over the state budget to those over tax caps, stories like Marlboro’s are sure to come to the fore.
Advocates for schools and municipalities have already lined up to testify about the potential consequences of further limits, be it Christie’s 2.5 percent or the competing 2.9 percent cap from Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
Using state data of this and next years’ local school levies, an analysis finds that schools statewide would have seen at least $200 million more reduced from their proposed budgets had Christie’s cap been in place.
It wouldn’t have been much easier under Sweeney’s plan, either, although his proposal allows for considerable exceptions for health care and other extraordinary costs. Sweeney also would not make it a constitutional amendment, but keep it in statute.
Yesterday, Christie said bring it on.
Triumphantly signing into law his first state budget of $28.3 billion, Christie moved quickly to demand the Legislature take up his “Cap 2.5” proposal in special session, starting this Thursday.
“All we’ve done in the last five months is just the beginning,” Christie said at the signing ceremony inside a South River firehouse. “We do not feel our job is anywhere close to being completed.”
“This kind of success gives us the momentum to go even further, and faster, and harder, and tougher,” he continued, “to work for the people of this state to improve their life in this very simple way: to get government the hell out of your way and the hell out of your pocket.”
How much the Democrats are willing to play along is uncertain, as are the prospects that the two sides could reach some kind of compromise in the coming days and weeks.
Both the Senate and Assembly approved Sweeney’s 2.9 percent cap this week, sending the bill to Christie’s desk. The governor initially had been expected to veto the measure, but he hedged a little yesterday in saying he wanted “to read it first.”
“We’ll look at it and consider our options,” he said.
The Democrats put out their own pronouncements, saying they would consider Christie’s proposal in due time but made clear they were in no rush. For Christie’s constitutional amendment to make the November ballot, it must pass committee in the first week of July.
Assemblyman Joseph Cryan (D-Union), the Democratic majority leader, said Monday night that an expedited passage would not happen, and he released a statement yesterday that stepped up the rhetoric.
“We have already committed to reviewing his and other ideas over the summer in anticipation of legislative action this fall, and that will continue to be our plan, no matter how many times the governor looks to show off,” Cryan’s statement read.
Back in the Marlboro superintendent’s office, the debate has Abbott reeling over what might be coming next.
He said the district can live with tax limits, whatever amount they come down to. After all, Marlboro had no tax increase at all the year before, he said. But the superintendent said the rigidity of Christie’s proposal, especially, is difficult when he faces rising costs elsewhere.
For instance, health care costs are expected to go up as much as 30 percent next year, he said, and the district already tapped a few one-time savings and revenue sources. Administrators took wage freezes, and new user fees have been placed on sports and extracurricular activities.
"We’ve already outsourced our custodians,” he said. “We’d need to look at outsourcing all the other services, food services, transportation, even our aides.”
“If you are going to give me a new cap, at least give me some flexibility,” Abbott said.