JERSEY CITY, NJ - While nothing concrete was resolved at the joint meeting of the Jersey City Board of Education and City Council, the war of words over the school budget crisis grew less intense, as both government bodies sought common ground.
For the past several months, speakers from the BOE have spoken up during council meetings, demanding that the city help maintain the level of funding needed to provide an adequate education for the district’s 30,000 students.
Faced with massive cuts in state aid – partly due to the city’s previous policies on abatements, the school board passed an $814 million budget in March that would raise taxes on local property owners by nearly $1000 per year.
Board of Education President Mussab Ali, who pointed out that the school district gets about half the local taxes when compared to those around the state, has warned that next year’s budget may see an even larger increase, unless solutions can be found to bring new revenue in.
Although at one point, the state gave aid to the district that covered more than two thirds of the school budget, that funding – under pressure from legislators elsewhere in the state – has been slashed by $391 million since 2018. This year alone, the school district lost about $71 million in state aid.
While the funding was coming in, the city was able to award long term abatements that kept municipal taxes down without having a significant impact on schools, while at the same time increasing ratables from $20 billion to $40 billion over the past decade. The city eventually modified its abatement policies, but only after the drastic cuts in state aid.
In more recent years city officials have attempted to find ways to help the school district such as providing shared services that reduce the school district’s overhead and implementing a payroll tax to help bolster the district’s revenue.
The joint meeting, held at the Hank Gallo Community Center in Lincoln Park, brought the two governing bodies together for the first time since this crisis started, allowing both sides to talk speak directly to each other about the issues, and to attempt to find common ground on possible solutions.
There are only two ways to keep the taxpayers from being impacted, Councilman Rolando Lavarro, theorized, reducing the municipal tax or having the city give the district a bigger portion of the total taxes raised.
“Jersey City, as a city, can afford to put more money in,” Ali suggested.
The growing problem is exacerbated by a continued uncertainty related to the full economic impact of COVID, on the highest revenue producing parts of the city – including on the payroll tax. Even this was a point of contention as Councilman Richard Boggiano said many residents are moving out of Jersey City while BOE Trustee Gerald Lyons said many people are moving in from across the river, and may make up for the disparity.
Ward E Councilman James Solomon suggested the city implement what historically are called “sin” taxes, those on such things as cigarettes and alcohol while Councilman Yousef Saleh said the city should dedicate taxes raised from the permissible to percent tax on recreational marijuana to education.
Both sides admitted that solutions may not be possible without some additional help from the state and that local leaders need to lobby legislators to reduce the cutbacks in state aid.
“We all live here,” Council President Joyce Watterman said as both sides to set up various working groups to continue discussion on a wide range of education funding related issues. “I think we should all get along and put everything on the table.”
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