PERTH AMBOY – Only 20 of the 591 school districts are using the expansion of state aid to schools for tax relief this year, which is not surprising to Gov. Chris Christie, although he hopes that many districts will bank the aid as surplus to reduce property tax bills next year.
“That’s because the (funding) came so late,” he said in Perth Amboy today. Christie’s banner headline from the budget season was an expansion of school aid that reached all districts. He blamed the late budget debate for leaving taxpayers in the lurch in 2011.
“(The districts) already struck property tax bills,” he said. “That’s what happens when things go so late.”
The increase to school aid is partly a mandate from the state Supreme Court ($500 million), and partly because the governor made education a priority in the late stages of the budget process ($150 million), even at the expense of building a formidable surplus to appease credit agencies.
“With all the hyperbole with all the education cuts (last year),” he said, “the promise I made was when times got better I would put it all back. I just didn’t think I would do it all in one year.”
The Department of Community Affairs released data this week showing only 20 of the nearly 600 districts across the state used their aid for tax relief, some of which are regional districts. In total, 27 municipalities in 16 counties received a direct impact on their tax bills from the funding.
Christie said they told the districts, “If you can use it in your budget this year, please do;” otherwise, hold the money in surplus and put it toward tax relief next year, he said. If the districts choose to increase their current budget with the funding, administrators must have approval from the Executive County Superintendent.
Asked if the state is attaching any strings to the funding, Christie said there’s no “predisposition” from the state’s point of view as to how the individual districts spend that state aid. He argued that each district should have the ability to determine the way the money is spent on a case by case basis, somewhat contradictory to his implementation of a salary cap for district spending on superintendents.
Acting Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf sent each district superintendent a memo this year all but begging the schools to use the increased aid directly for tax relief. “Using this aid to lower taxes is an important step towards new and effective management of our schools that focuses on improved student achievement, rather than increased spending,” Cerf said in his letter. “I urge you to join our reform initiative by applying these newly-allocated funds to alleviate your district’s taxes this fiscal year.”