The city’s public schools’ tentative budget includes a 27.2-percent school tax levy increase to raise $10.6 million from homeowners to close a massive budget shortfall, according to school officials.
School board members were caught off guard on Wednesday evening when they spotted the school levy increase in a budget document the board was expected to considerer for a vote.
The levy change will increase property owners’ contribution – which remained unchanged for more than a decade — to the school budget from $38.9 million to $49.56 million for the 2016-17 school year budget, according to district documents.
“This needs to be removed,” said school board president Christopher Irving upon sight of the school levy increase line. He reminded state-appointed district superintendent Donnie Evans the school board objected to raising revenue through property tax hikes.
“People in this town cannot afford an additional tax increase,” said the president pointing to the struggle at the municipal level over a 6.1-percent tax increase.
“This was not on the table Monday night,” said Nakima Redmon, school board member. She too said city homeowners can ill afford to pay more in taxes. Board member told the superintendent on Monday night a hike in the school levy would be unacceptable considering the plight of property owners.
Jonathan Hodges, school board member, said the school levy increase is being imposed by the state. “They want us to go and take $10 million from the city which is already crippled,” he said.
“This almost scared me out of my seat,” added board member Errol Kerr. “It’s absolutely ridiculous. Homeowners can’t afford it.”
Hodges placed the blame on the state for underfunding the district over the past half-decade. The school system has been underfunded by $242.4 million over the past seven years, according to the Paterson Education Fund, an advocacy.
“When was this dropped on your lap, sir?” asked Kerr asked Evans about the school levy hike.
“We needed to at least examine that possibility,” responded Evans. He has indicated a possible school levy was in store. For example, when he handed out a list of reductions, on how to balance the budget, school levy increase was listed with a question mark.
Evans also broached the levy increase at Monday’s meeting which was attended by hundreds of parents and teachers protesting budget cuts.
School board members dismissed any school levy increase at that meeting. Evans’ administration presented the board with a one-page document to approve the revenue side of the budget.
“One page?” said a visibly upset board member Flavio Rivera as he lifted up the document to a crowd of more than 100 people at the John F. Kennedy High School auditorium. The one page contained the revenue line items.
“It’s like being blindfolded. I don’t know what’s being cut,” said Irving.
“How are we supposed to vote on an incomplete budget?” remarked board member Chrystal Cleaves.
“It’s very unfair for us to make a decision,” said board member Lilisa Mimms. She said she could not make a decision on the budget without the documentations.
Board member Kenneth Simmons hearkened back to last year. He said at this time last year, board members were provided with a full preliminary budget document.
Business administrator Daisy Ayala said the board will receive the budget after the Passaic County superintendent of schools reviews it.
The district is required by state law to submit the budget to the county by Friday. She said the board will receive a copy at the end of the month.
“They want us to follow the law. I respectfully say, state of New Jersey you first,” said Hodges. “The constitution of the state says you have to provide a ‘thorough and efficient’ education. The constitution trumps law!”
Hodges said millions of dollars in cuts every year is dismantling the city’s public education system. City students are far behind their peers in other school districts, said Hodges. He said the district needs more funding to catch up not less.
Last year, the district laid off more than 300 employees – including 175 teachers — as a result of a budget shortfall.
Fablina Zaman, a city student, reflected on the learning experience and education she received from her teachers, who were laid off last year.
“Those teachers are not here anymore,” she said. “Why did it have to happen? We all don’t deserve this.”
This year, the district is proposing laying off more employees, but at the central office. Evans has said classroom cuts will be a last resort. His proposed reduction list includes one position cut at every school.
The district will also exit leases for St. Mary’s Early Learning Center and Boris Kroll building for $904,000 savings. The district may also close School 14 and the Urban Leadership Academy to save $1.33 million. It will also decrease overtime, substitute, transportation, courtesy busing, and maintenance contracts to generate $9.5 million in savings.
The district will also eliminate the Alternative Middle School, School 11, and St. Mary’s to save $2.86 million. School 14 and Urban Leadership Academy closure will also save $1.33 million.
Evans is also eliminating a number of consultants to save $2.25 million. He is also cutting stipends, professional development, an athletics program, among other items to generate $7.5 million in savings.
The state is providing the district with $401.43 million in education funding, $1.6 million more than last year; however, that figure falls far short of what the district should be receiving under a court mandate, according to Hodges.
Six board members voted against the tentative budget while one was absent and another abstained. Rivera departed from the meeting prior to the vote and Simmons abstained.
Irving said the superintendent can submit the budget to the county despite the board’s rejection of the tentative budget. He said the necessary legal documents returning control of fiscal management have not yet finalized.
The district will schedule special meeting to discuss the budget on Monday, said Simmons.