In a letter to all New Jersey newspapers, Edwina M. Lee, NJSBA executive director, this week urged state leaders to resolve the school construction funding issue as quickly as possible. The text of Lee’s letter follows:
“As New Jersey enters the post-election period, an important piece of business remains unfinished: Fulfilling unmet school construction needs.
This summer, the state stopped work on more than 200 necessary projects in our 31 poorest school districts. There is still no completion date in sight. Meanwhile, in other communities, voters this year approved the vast majority of projects. They went to the polls with the expectation that state funds would offset the property taxes needed for construction. Today, many of these school districts await word on how the state will support their construction programs.
New Jersey was at the cutting edge nationwide when it established an $8.6 billion program for new schools in 2000. Now those funds are nearly gone. Newspaper investigations and government reports cite numerous reasons why the money declined so rapidly under the state’s stewardship. Although the state funding has diminished, the need for modern, safe school facilities has not shrunk.
As early as 1990, NJSBA estimated the cost of necessary school construction and renovation at $10 billion. Going forward, school construction needs will grow, rather than recede. The U.S. Department of Education predicts increased enrollment through 2013. As our school buildings age, upgrading of classrooms, libraries and science laboratoriesneeded for New Jersey to keep pace with neighboring stateswill remain critical.
State government must learn from the past and ensure accountability and efficiency in its school construction funding program. But it must also move forward…and move forward quickly. “Bridge funding” is an essential first step. It would ensure completion of projects now on hold in poor communities and provide grant funding to lessen the property tax burden of voter-approved school construction elsewhere. Clearly, bridge funding needs to be a top priority for the administration and Legislature during the post-election period.
On behalf of all local school districts, I urge our state’s leaders to address the need for school construction and renovation as quickly as possible.”
Key Post-Election Issues In addition to unmet school construction needs, NJSBA is concerned about the high cost of utilities and fuelwhich hit just a year after the budget restrictions of Senate Bill 1701 were enacted. Among S-1701’s many restrictions were forced reductions in school surplus, or “rainy day” accounts, from a minimum of 3 percent to no more than 2 percent. But a bill in the Legislature, A-3680/S-2278, would provide interim relief from this restriction and other burdens created by S-1701.
A-3680/S-2278, passed unanimously by the Assembly in July and awaiting Senate action, would increase allowable surplus from 2 to 3 percent. In addition, it would help schools deal with the rising costs of special education, insurance, security and utilities by freeing increases in those costs from the budget caps imposed by S-1701.
Property Tax Reform More than 75 of the members of the Assembly and Senateover 60 percent of the Legislaturehave signed on to concurrent resolutions (ACR-99/SCR-20 and ACR-218) that would convene the Legislature in special session for the express purpose of addressing tax reform.
New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation, but the state government pays less than 40 percent of the cost of public educationcompared to a nationwide average of 50 percent. Taxpayers make up the difference in school funding with property taxes.
To resolve the overreliance on property taxes, NJSBA advocates a statewide decrease in local school property taxes that is matched, dollar for dollar, by a shift to the state income tax. The tax shift would result in state government providing, on a statewide basis, the equivalent of 50 percent or more of the cost of public education in the form of aid to education and school property tax relief funding. NJSBA’s policy on school property tax reform supports a tax shift, not a tax increase.