Taxpayers in Bayonne will face higher school taxes and layoffs for school district employees if the Board of Education’s 2017-2018 budget is approved as introduced on Thursday, March 16.
The board, in an effort to curtail a $2.1 million structural budget deficit that could balloon to $5.5 million by the next school year without corrective actions, voted 5-4 to levy a 3.95 percent property tax. The levy on local taxpayers amounts to $65 million as part of the tentative 2017-2018 school budget, which totals $133,150,503.
The tentative budget will then go to the Hudson County Superintendent of Schools for approval, and the Board of Education will vote to approve the final budget at a public hearing on Wednesday, April 26.
The budget means the proposed tax levy on an average Bayonne home assessed at $125,170 would result in a $120 increase in its property tax bill. A $175,000 home would see a $168 increase. The increase comes after the city already increased taxes by 2.27 percent in 2016.
The board flirted with the idea of levying taxes to the full cap of 6.86 percent that would have required fewer layoffs, but that would have required a citywide referendum.
An inexact human cost
In addition to increasing revenue from property taxes, the board plans to reduce costs by about $4 million, which will amount to dozens of layoffs in the coming months. As many as 85 district employees may be at risk of losing their jobs, according to a rough estimate cited by the board, which includes an anticipated 18 retirements.
The board is calculating the number of layoffs based on the cost of an average district employee, or a “fulltime equivalency,” which is pegged at $62,000 including insurance. So, the number of layoffs will depend largely on the salaries of those employees.
“It would be 85 if all the additional people we laid off were educators, but that is not likely to be the case,” said board accountant Matthew Boudin.
“Sixty-two thousand – that’s the number we have to come up with, said Business Administrator Leo Smith. “Whether it’s 200 aides and 32 teachers or 72 custodians and three bus drivers, and 12 administrators, then that’s how it works out. The pain is going to be felt across the board.”
The board has made efforts not to mitigate reductions in program funding. For instance, the Director of Athletics was reassigned to be a physical education teacher, and a vice-principal was reassigned to teach art, positions that also come with reduced salaries.
“What we do is combine some of the programs,” said Trustee Dennis Wilbeck. “So that people stay on their job, in their field, and don’t lose their job.”
“When it hits the paper that property taxes are going up, citizens are not going to be happy.” – Alan D’Angelo
Only option left
“The group up here [board trustees] realizes this is the only option we have left,” said Board President Joseph Broderick, speaking of tax increases. He emphasized that the board considered “what the Bayonne taxpayer can actually afford.”
“It’s not something we thought of lightly,” said Broderick. “I promise you that we will leave no stone unturned that makes this the education system what it should be.”
“When it hits the paper that property taxes are going up, citizens are not going to be happy,” said Bayonne Teachers Association President Alan D’Angelo, urging the board to save more district jobs by levying the full tax cap of 6.86 percent. “My point is if you’re going to take that hit anyhow, raise it enough so you don’t have to lay off any teachers.”
A reduction in force and spending will inevitably lead to larger class sizes, which Broderick said would be “no more than 35, I promise you that.”
“I’m going to hear somewhere down the line that you’re going to have to do more with less. And that’s crap,” said D’Angelo. “We’re not going to do more with less. We can’t do much more than what we’re doing now.”
Math that doesn’t add up
A forensic audit by the NJ Department of Education, due to start on March 28, will show how exactly the district’s structural deficit came to be, and will be welcomed by the board.
“People have to stop saying the money is missing. It’s not missing. It was overspent,” said Trustee Christopher Munoz, who voted against the property tax levy. “There is a big fundamental difference. That’s why we trustees are looking forward to this audit coming in.”
The board seems to be taking steps to prevent a financial crisis like this one from happening again. Trustee Mary Jane Desmond said that they received detailed monthly reports from the district only after asking “ad nauseam” for them. “When we found out in November there was a structural deficit, now we’re getting reports,” said Desmond. “Now you have a better handle of ongoing expenses. It doesn’t fix yesterday, but it gives you a leg up for tomorrow.” Desmond also voted against the tax levy.
Right now, the board points to inadequate state funding and irregular local property tax levies over the course of the last decade as culprits on the revenue side of the equation. On spending, most residents, and some trustees, point to investment into the academies and various high school programs as a source of the district’s deficit.
“What it comes down to is costs keep going up but we’re not getting anything in return,” said Trustee Chris Munoz. “Health insurance premiums go up every year. That’s huge. Salary increases for staff, which are normal, standard living wage increases. Pension payments go up.”
Another reason for the district’s fiscal woes, said Munoz, can be gleaned from a cost analysis of district revenue from years 2007-2017. For six of those ten years, the board did not raise taxes, effectively starving themselves of resources.
NJ Gov. Christopher Christie’s recent proposed budget holds state aid to municipalities flat, as it has been for the past nine years, while built-in costs such as pension payments and insurance continues to rise. Bayonne has seen a reduction in state aid by about $450,000 for the 2017-2018 school year, while neighboring Jersey City has three times as many students as Bayonne and receives eight times as much funding.
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.