The school board approved its preliminary 2018-19 school year budget on Thursday night by taking out the two-percent property tax hike.
School board members voted 7-2 to approve the $586.68 million budget. Business administrator Richard Matthews had included a $829,119 school levy increase which amounted to $17 more per year on an average home assed at $190,000.
Oshin Castillo, school board president, said the tax hike, which had been in the budget as late as last week, had been taken out.
“We fought hard and listened to the community. We can’t afford another tax increase,” said Castillo. Local taxpayers still face tax increases from the county and the municipal government.
The budget had a $42.3 million school levy, up from $41.45 million the previous year. Much of the district’s budget is made up of state and federal education funds.
“What has changed?” asked school board member Jonathan Hodges.
Matthews said the gap created by removal of the tax increase was filled with money from the fund balance line. He said the removal of the tax increase did not negatively affect any programs.
School board members were divided on the school levy.
“I’m loath to support taxes. I do not want to not raise taxes on the backs of students,” said Hodges. “I don’t like tax increases. I prefer a minor tax increase as was sold to me — $17.10. I will pay that so kids get the services they need.”
Hodges pointed out local school tax obligation is $92 million. Paterson is paying about half of what it is supposed to under the school funding formula. In Jersey City, the local taxpayers contribute, far less than Paterson, one third of their required contribution.
It’s difficult to fight for more funding when the local portion is not fully funded, argued Hodges.
“While personally, I myself cannot afford another tax increase, I understand the need to do so,” said school board member Kenneth Simmons. “If we’re going to produce the best and brightest we have to have the tools to do so.”
“We need to evaluate every program we have implemented to see if it’s working or not,” said school board member Flavio Rivera, chairman of the fiscal committee. He suggested cutting costly programs that have failed to produce results.
Simmons also said the district needs to evaluate and eliminate programs that are not working.
Rivera suggested in some cases the district, under state control since 1991, is a poor steward of funds. For example, the district obtained a $1.4 million bid for a project that an engineer estimated would cost $437,000. It was later determined the same project could be done in-house for $300,000.
“You are going to tell me we’re going to contemplate raising taxes when things like that are going on?” remarked Rivera. “Until the district acts more responsibly I can’t contemplate a tax increase.”
If he did not question the resolution in committee, the contract for the project probably would have been awarded, said Rivera.
“I would argue that Paterson does not pay more until the state pays more. It’s not fair for the folks at the state to hold Paterson accountable. We’re one of the poorest cities in New Jersey,” said Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, a nonprofit education advocacy.
Simmons and Hodges voted against the preliminary budget.
Some viewed Hodges’ advocacy for a tax hike as political maneuvering. Four school board members, who are not his allies, are up for re-election in eight months. A vote to increase taxes would have hurt them at the polls.
Hodges pointed to last year’s school budget which had a tax increase that was later removed.
“I voted against that, even though I was running for re-election, based on the same principle: you don’t remove taxes by taking away money from the educational needs of the students,” said Hodges. “I clearly wasn’t playing politics then and I am not now.”
Castillo tried to take a separate vote on whether to raise taxes. This would have turned the table on Hodges by forcing him to vote for a tax hike. She backed off after the business administrator said that would require him to revise the budget document again. Matthews told the board the budget had to be transmitted to the Passaic County superintendent of schools tonight.
Hodges asked superintendent Eileen Shafer whether the budget provides a “thorough and efficient” education.
Shafer at first replied in the affirmative, but later revised her comment.
“It’s much more ‘thorough and efficient’ in this coming year than it has been in the past,” said Shafer.
The district needs another $30 million to add basics like librarians, bilingual teachers, and other items taken for granted elsewhere.
The board will hold a public hearing on April 11, 2018 prior to voting on adopting a final budget.
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This report was updated at 12:48 p.m.