Interview with Holmdel School Board Vice President Mike Sockol

HOLMDEL, NJ:  TAPinto Holmdel editor Jeanne Wall discussed budget and policy questions with Mike Sockol, Vice President of the Holmdel School Board, to address a variety of issues on the minds of residents regarding the school district. 

Wall: The school budget has made its way into the local primary election. Some are questioning why taxes were increased by about $1,000,000. Your thoughts?

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Sockol: Well, the funny thing is we had two open hearings on our budget, and we received very little feedback.  I recognize that the School District has become a bit of a political football among the candidates participating in the July 7th primary, but I don’t think people are getting the whole story.

Wall: Such as?

Sockol: The budget for the 2020-21 school year is relatively flat.  Overall expenses went up only sixth-tenths of a percent, compared to a 2.5% increase that the Township is considering. We also made significant inroads to reduce the cost of benefits in next year’s budget by more than $300,000, which always represents a major portion of our budget. We're also saving money on debt service, since we timed the Holmdel 2020 referendum around the retirement of old debt. 

Wall: Speaking of the referendum, there is also a claim out there that there was a $3 million dollar overrun associated with the project.

Sockol: I have no idea where that accusation is coming from, Jeanne.  All I can tell you is that factually, the administration and the project team have done an amazing job managing the largest school construction project in roughly 20 years.  Even with the most recent challenges associated with the coronavirus, we expect the project to be completed by this fall, on time and on budget. 

Wall: Okay. Going back to the two budgets, the Township didn’t raise property taxes, while the School Board did. Right?

Sockol:  True, but the School Board has only one primary source of income—property tax.  In comparison, the Township only uses property taxes to pay for less than 60% of their budget, which makes it a lot easier for them to avoid tax increases. But that doesn’t mean taxpayers are off the hook.  They pay into the surpluses that are used to support the Township's budget.  They pay the interest on the town’s debt.  You also have to factor in a wide variety of user fees, such as building permits, liquor licenses and court costs -- they are used to build its budget. And of course, the Township receives 95% of all the money raised from the Bell Works property, including payments that cover homes with school age children.  Even the County gets more money from that property than the local schools.  

Wall: You’re referring to the PILOT money, right? In a typical ratable, the school receives its share of taxes to reduce taxes. Here, with the plan designed by the township - the school district receives zero.  If the Township gave the School District some of the PILOT money, how would it help taxpayers?

Sockol:  I’ve been following the debate around PILOT for most of time that I’ve been on the School Board.  One of the main arguments I heard from town officials is that they saw this agreement as a way to reduce the tax burden on homeowners. You can do that because at the end of the day, most of the PILOT revenue is commercial.  I think there are still a lot people around here who remember Bell Labs and how that single property contributed to about 25% of our tax base. Its existence was a major contributing factor behind building a high quality, K-12 school system.  The main issue is the Township’s resistance to share that revenue, even though in doing so, they could reduce school taxes.

Wall: How could they do that?

Sockol: For example, the School District has budgeted to pay the township $350,000 for police officers to protect our students and staff.  If the Township earmarked the PILOT money to pay for that service, the school district would not have to raise money to pay for that bill, so we would use that money for direct tax relief. Personally, I would like to treat PILOT money the same way we treat any outside funding.  We would put the money towards specific expenses, and not general operating costs. 

Wall: Some people claim the BOE doesn’t do a good job spending its money. What is your response?

Sockol: I’m really struggling with that.  In the ten years I’ve served on the board, we’ve kept tax increases on average below the 2% cap mandated by the state.  In return, we’ve lowered class sizes, and added new classes, new sports teams, and new artistic opportunities for our students.  We opened all-day kindergarten, cut energy costs, and expanded our technology infrastructure, so we were better prepared to switch to remote learning when COVID-19 hit. We’ve been rated a high performing district by the State.  Even the Township’s own budget document calls the district “highly rated.” And it is.  A popular on-line rating service, Niche, gives Holmdel schools an A+.  When U.S. News and World Report ranked nearly 18,000 high schools from around the country, including private schools and magnet programs, we were among the top 8% nationwide.  The top magnet schools in the area “cherry pick” our eighth graders because they are so well-trained to meet new challenges. That’s one of the reasons we’ve bolstered our STEM offerings, adding robotics to our growing engineering program.

This is also a good time to give a shout-out to my fellow board members.  You have nine highly dedicated volunteers who spend hours of their free time working with our administrators and providing counsel and advice to ensure school excellence.  We’re lucky to have such a committed group of folks who are focused on doing what is best for the School District.  

Wall: Shifting gears a bit, what’s your assessment of remote learning?

Sockol:  We are in the midst of a once in a lifetime emergency in which we asked our teachers and administrators to organize a brand-new way of instruction on short notice. Educators all around the country are saying the same thing—we are literally flying at the seat of our pants here.  The administration has promised the Board that significant curriculum planning will take place this summer to make adjustments based upon lessons learned over the last few months.  Equally important, the administration understands that we have a demanding community that wants the very best for our children.

Wall:  Do you see children returning to classrooms in the Fall?

Sockol: That is the goal. Everything I’ve read suggests that the best educational approach involves physical classroom settings. We have to follow state mandates around social distancing, which will put pressure on how we organize our classes. 

Wall:  Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions today. 

Sockol: My pleasure.  Stay safe and well.