To the Editor:

I read the recent news item that Chris Walker is resigning from the Flemington-Raritan School District (FRSD) Board of Education. Aside from his presence on the school board, I don’t know Mr. Walker and I did not vote from him in the most recent election. Nonetheless, I will miss any voice that calls for fiscal discipline and prudent management of taxpayer funds.

In the news article, Mr. Walker was quoted as saying “We can’t just say we are for the students and teachers,” ... “We’re also here for the taxpayers and those who don’t have kids in the schools.” He’s right. Among other things, a school board should be setting the parameters for budget development and serving as the voice that represents the public during contract negotiations. In the Flemington-Raritan district, not a single one of the top three administrators live within the district boundaries. That includes the business administrator who was recently rewarded with a raise and new contract. Consequently, they are immune from the consequences of their budgetary decisions. In that situation, the voice of the taxpayer, solely embodied within our elected school board members, is critical. From observation and research, that oversight seems to have been lacking, not just from this current board, but for the past 10 years.

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During the past several years, using district data and public source material on the NJ Department of Education website, I have raised several important questions regarding budgets and expenditures in the FRSD. Those questions included, but aren’t limited to, important topics that remain unanswered to this day: Why during an almost 10-year period when our student enrollment declined by 600 students - almost 20 percent - did our district budget still go up almost 20 percent? Why, during that same period of massive declines in enrollment, did our certificated and none-certificated staff increase by 10 percent?  Why during that same period, when staff and benefit related costs only went up 10 percent, did “other” costs increase by 50 percent, from $14 million to $21 million? Why was no reserve being created for capital repairs, as other districts apparently do, so that the district had to ultimately fund a huge referendum last fall for bond issues totaling $42 million? Why were our schools allowed to deteriorate as we apparently were awash in taxpayer monies already?

I could go on, but you get the point; as our student enrollment declined spending continued and increased, there was no respite for the taxpayers in the Flemington and Raritan Township communities. During the period when student enrollment declined by 600 students, our collective tax burden went up 20 percent, from $46.6 million to $55.7 million. To further insult the taxpayers of these communities, in the recently approved budget for the 2020-21 school year, the district exceeded the 2 percent tax levy cap due to a projected enrollment increase. To quote the business manager, “We are at 2 percent, plus an additional .07 percent. This is a $34,636 enrollment adjustment. The state predicts what they think the increase in our enrollment will be based on several variables, and said that we are allowed to take an adjustment of about $34,000.”  

Think about that ... the district took a $34,000 adjustment to exceed the tax levy cap because they could do so, not because it was needed or that it was right. They just could. It’s not the inconsequential amount of money involved, it’s the principle. For almost 10 years, as student population declined by almost 20 percent, the taxpayers in these communities saw no relief. The minute that there was a projection of an enrollment increase, they took it and passed the bill on to you. In the meantime, there was substantial discussion about the nominal loss of a modest amount of state funding, equally a diversionary red herring in a budget that now exceeds $67 million. This budget, the development of which started last fall, was adopted on May 4, 2020. Mr. Walker was the only board member to ask a question in a public forum, regarding the building of a capital reserve, prior to the passage of this budget.

As a country, and a community, we are now in the middle of an unprecedented crisis. The coming school year will bring great challenges in delivering education safely to our students while managing new demands on district finances. In the past, the district’s approach to change, or new mandates and requirements, has been to continually raise taxes on our communities. There was little evident thought or attention given as to how can the district become better or more efficient at what it does. Are there things that can be done without? Are there things that can be done differently? Unlike homeowners, or private sector enterprises, or even when compared to other governmental bodies in our area, it seems that there was rarely an analysis of tough choices between a want and a need within the district. Now, with unemployment at record levels, small businesses teetering on the edge of ruin, the State of New Jersey in dire financial straits, and the local taxpayers literally tapped out, there is no alternative other than for FRSD to get creative with the resources that it now has; they can’t go back to the taxpayers to dig deeper into our collective pockets. A moment of crisis is a true test of leadership; the coming months will determine if the taxpayers are getting the financial leadership for which we are paying for, and that was recently bragged about, in this district.

From observation, the role of a school board member is not easy. It is volunteer work, requiring long hours and often difficult decisions. While I don’t always agree with decisions made, and have been vocal from time to time, I appreciate the time and commitment that all of them make. From recent news articles, it is apparent that Chris Walker often swam against the tide with respect to other prevailing views on the board. He should be applauded for at least asking questions, making his opinions known, and representing the often under-represented taxpayers who live in these communities. I don’t know if he was always right, but he didn’t blindly approve what was put in front of him. As we move through uncertain times, the board will need to do more of that: asking the tough questions, digging into details, and determining if the best is being done with the taxpayers’ monies. I hope that they are able to do so.

Sincerely,

Ron Tonge

Raritan Township