SUMMIT, NJ—The Summit Common Council, at its second September meeting voted, six in favor with one abstention, to support the “Fairness Formula for Equal School Funding and Property Tax Relief.”
The formula, advocated by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, calls for every school district in the state to receive state aid of $6,599 per pupil. This would run contrary to state school aid currently in place, which provides substantially more aid to so-called “Abbott districts,” which are more economically disadvantaged than non-Abbott districts in the state.
In endorsing the Christie approach, however, the various Council members and Mayor Nora Radest took different stances on the approach and the ultimate solution to New Jersey aid to public schools.
Also, although supporting the need for taking a closer look at the question, Democratic Councilman-at-Large Richard Sun abstained on the council support for the Christie-proposed solution.
New Jersey’s current school funding system evolved after the 1990 New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in the Abbott vs. Burke case, which stated that the discrepancies in state aid funding at that time between the wealthier and poorer districts in the state resulted in children in the poorer districts not receiving the “thorough and efficient education” guaranteed by the state constitution.
The Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that a state aid funding plan in effect at that time was constitutional and had to be fully funded.
Since the original Abbott ruling, covering 28 school districts, the amount of districts covered has expanded to 35.
However, many residents and officials around the state have often complained over the years that redirecting state aid from schools in wealthier communities to the Abbott districts has resulted in higher property taxes in the wealthier communities with very little improvement in academic achievement in the Abbott districts.
In fact, the national average for property taxes last year was $2,127, while New Jersey Treasury Department statistics for 2015 put the average Summit residential tax bill at $17,117.
At the Summit Council session, Second Ward Republican council candidate Steven Bowman said he fully supported the Christie plan, noting that the proposed state aid figure would bring in about $27 million for city schools, compared to about $1.7 million or $405 per pupil currently.
During council discussions on the resolution, it was pointed out that Abbott districts spend about 20 percent of local tax dollars in support of local public schools while the more wealthy districts, like Summit, spend about 60 percent of local tax dollars.
It also was noted that the graduation rate in Abbott districts is about 60 percent compared to 90 percent or better in most of the wealthier districts.
Council president Michael McTernan was joined by fellow council members Sandra Lizza, Mary Ogden, Patrick Hurley and Robert Rubino in citing the above statistics and the potential property tax relief to Summit residents that they said would come from implementation of the Christie plan.
Council members also said the current funding mechanism was not fair to Abbott district children because it often forced them to spend money “out of pocket” to take remedial classes in community college to bring them to the educational levels they should have had when graduating high school.
Hurley added that the mentality for too long has been “fund it and forget it” and leadership would be shown only in finding new and more creative ways in dealing with the educational needs in the Abbott districts.
All acknowledged, however, that the final solution to state school funding probably would come only from a compromise between the Christie proposal and alternative funding mechanisms such as an alternative proposed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney.
First Ward Councilman David Naidu, said that, while he was “not thrilled” by the wording of the resolution, he would support if because Summit residents pay much more than they should in property taxes.
Naidu added that the governor would not get what he wanted in state school funding and Christie and the legislature needed to sit down and work out a compromise.
Mayor Nora Radest, who votes on council resolutions only in the event of a tie, said she had fought for many years for a state school aid formula that would be more fair to Summit taxpayers.
Radest added, however, that she saw the need for some poorer districts to receive greater levels of state aid.
She called for a complete revamping of the state school aid mechanism.
Radest’s position received support from John Harmon of 1 William Street, who said he thought towns that have more wealth should be willing to help students in towns that have less wealth.
McTernan noted the Christie proposal would be “per capita” with total funding based on the total number of students in each district.
Following the meeting, when contacted by TAPInto Summit regarding the Council resolution, Summit Superintendent of Schools June Chang said in a statement, "We can't project what happens at the state level, but our focus has always been and remains to be to provide the best education for all students of Summit.”
On another matter, the Council held a lengthy discussion on a request by Summit Downtown, Inc. (SDI), the advocacy group which supports downtown businesses and initiatives, and the Suburban Chamber of Commerce for free holiday parking in the City during the holiday season -- December 12 to 24 -- and a request by SDI to make permanent free holiday parking on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the latter a provision that the Council has approved every year for the last couple of years.
SDI Executive Director Marin Mixon said her organization and the Chamber would be grateful for even a smaller number of free parking on any of the days within the parameters cited above.
She noted that nearby communities like New Providence and Berkeley Heights have daily free parking and extended free parking -- up to three weeks during the holidays -- is offered in such communities as Morristown, Montclair and Haddonfield.
Mixon also noted that Princeton offers validation of parking meter receipts in order for shoppers to receive free parking. Ogden indicated she would be interested in exploring the validation concept.
Karen Hadley, Executive Director of the Suburban Chamber of Commerce, which represents the communities of Summit, New Providence and Berkeley Heights, supported Mixon’s comments.
Both McTernan and Lizza noted that Summit allows the first hour of parking for free in shopper parking lots.
Council members were concerned that extended free holiday parking might result in lack of turnover caused by employees in the central business district taking up the meters and shoppers remaining at free meters longer than the four hours that would be allotted for free parking.
Mixon said a combination of education and good will would make the system work more efficiently.
Summit Parking Services Manager Rita M. McNany said monitoring free parking was easier with covered on-street meters through use of the city’s new license-reading technology.
McNany said enforcement was more difficult in parking lots, where the public probably could not be barred “once the gates were open” and there was less staff to monitor the lots on Saturdays.
The Council did not take any action on free holiday parking, citing the need to get more information before making a decision.
On another matter, Radest presented certificates to members of the Summit Step Team in recognition of their first-place finish in the 2016 Six Flags National Competition.