City asks Trenton to deny Elizabeth school budget

ELIZABETH — The city council feels the school district budget is an excessive burden on taxpayers, but the school district did not agree at all.

To ensure their point got across, the council passed a non-binding resolution requesting the school district take a closer look at cutting their budget. To ensure they do, the council reinforced that message by sending a letter to New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, saying the 7.5 percent school tax increase of $3.6 million was “unjustly imposed” on taxpayers.

“The city is responsible for the health, safety, and welfare of its residents and is outraged with subsidizing the Elizabeth Board of Education spending habits, especially outside classroom expenses including promotional self-serving pictorial banners and brochures.”

Calling the move by the school district “unconscionable,” City Council member Patricia Perkins Auguste admitted at a council meeting last week she was shocked at the increase.

“I can’t believe they can go above the 2 percent cap,” she said, adding this was “pilfering our residents.”

The cap, which is imposed by the state, is a safety net to ensure municipalities and school districts do not increase taxes by more than a certain percentage.

When asked about the 7.6 percent increase in school taxes, Mayor Chris Bollwage did not hold back.
“In order to fund the lunch scandal they raised taxes,” the mayor said, adding “the board of education has no conscience when it comes to protecting taxpayers.”

“I’m hopeful the state does not approve their budget,” Bollwage added.
Residents with a home assessed at $33,000 will see an increase of $200 in their school tax bill.

Elizabeth Chief Financial Officer Tony Zengaro told council members it was “disheartening” to see that kind of an increase from the school district when the city has worked hard to stay below the 2 percent state-imposed cap.
“My point is the $3.6 million increase is just one-half of a percent of their total budget,” he said, adding “we simply can’t afford it.”

On the other hand, School District Board Secretary Don Goncalves pointed out the district had not raised taxes in several years. However, he did mention that increasing enrollment, longer school days and the cost of health benefits were to blame for the 7.5 percent increase in the 2013 school budget. Goncalves was correct about the school district tax levy increases remaining stable, but since the 2010-2011 school budget year the school budget increased by close to $90 million to $500.1 million for 2013-14. Of that amount, though, $417.1 million was funded by federal and state aid.

Goncalves also explained that over the last 16 years the city increased their tax levy by $85 million, compared to the school district levy which only increased by $10 million during the same period of time.

The board secretary also said the school district prepared its budget according to the guidelines put out by the New Jersey Department of Education Office of School finance.

“Our budget is also submitted for approval to the Union County Executive County Superintendent and Union County Business Administrator,” Goncalves said, suggesting the city council may not understand what the school district is allowed to leave outside the 2 percent cap.

“It appears city hall might not be aware of the process incorporated into the Enrollment Adjustment and Health Care Costs Adjustment included in the 2013-2014 District tax levy cap calculation when they claim ‘why the Elizabeth Board of Education is exempt from the cap imposed on all others,’” he added.

Goncalves also took issue with the fact that the city claimed it has “always complied with the 2 percent tax levy cap.”
“The city was allowed to exclude increase in pensions, health care costs, ratable adjustments and debt service,” Goncalves said. He also questioned whether the city actually was within the 2 percent state cap “as they claim,” and if the school districts increase would, in reality, have any impact on city operations.

“This is perplexing, especially when you look at the last 16 years where the city of Elizabeth has increased their tax levy amount by $85 million compared to the Elizabeth board of Education which increased only $10 million over the same period,” the school board secretary said.

Goncalves said the district will be opening two new schools in Elmora Hills section of the city in September, which is a plus for the city.

“We have sufficient performance data to highlight that under the stewardship of the present superintendent and board of education, the children of the city of Elizabeth continue to compete successfully within their peer group rankings as well as across many suburban schools throughout the state of New Jersey,” he added.

Finally, Goncalves addressed the accusations made by the city council in regard to how the school district spent taxpayers’ money.

“Any charges made by the City of Elizabeth as to their own budget are decisions they will need to make on their own, hopefully in the best interest of the taxpayers for the City of Elizabeth,” the board secretary said.

“Their spending over the last ten years, their increasing debt service, their dramatic increases in sewer charges and other spending that takes place in the city hall or in the budget at large is not as a result of the board of education’s budget. It is the result of the city council and mayor’s budget,” Goncalves said.

In an interview with LocalSource late last week, Zengaro said the school district has “some spending issues.” As a result he sent a letter to Cerf regarding the matter, copying Gov. Chris Christie, Mayor Chris Bollwage, Democrat State Senator Ray Lesniak and Assemblyman Joe Cryan and other officials.

In the letter Zengaro explained the socio-economic profile of the city’s population “is weak, as reflected in the high poverty rate, persistently high unemployment and family income significantly below the state and national level.”

The chief financial officer cited, for example, that in 2012 the poverty rate was 17.8 percent and unemployment was at 12.9 percent.

Explaining to Cerf the board of education spending habits included wasting money on “self-serving pictorial banners and brochures,” while the city maintained excellent services and stayed below the 2 percent state imposed cap. But in the end, it was the city that suffered.

Zengaro also informed the commissioner that as a result of the school district budget increase the city will be forced to layoff 30 public safety employees in the police and fire departments.

In closing, Zengaro suggested that since the $3.6 million school district increase reflected only one-half percent of the entire budget, the school board could benefit by operational efficiencies or the use of surplus to reduce the large increase that are above the 2 percent cap.

Goncalves, however, disagreed completely.

“The city’s whole charge revolves around how the Elizabeth Board of Education supposedly is doing something wrong by exceeding the 2 percent cap and they are incredulous about it,” the school board secretary said, adding the city, along with other municipalities, exceed the cap all the time.