Summit Council, Mayor See Full-Day Kindergarten as Too Costly for Taxpayers

January 16, 2013 at 7:00 AM

SUMMIT, NJ—A majority of the Summit Common Council and Mayor Ellen Dickson on Monday said the proposal by the city’s board of education for a full-day kindergarten funded by taxpayer dollars is too expensive, especially in light of a difficult economic climate, the expected cost of cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy, continuing county tax increases and the recent increases in the federal payroll tax.

The school board will sponsor a “town hall” forum on its proposal on Wednesday, Jan. 23, at 6:30 p.m. in the Jefferson Primary Center. A panel will discuss the proposal and a question-and-answer period will follow.

According to recent estimates by the education body, the capital cost of improving the Jefferson and Wilson Primary Centers to accommodate the expanded program plus the additional staffing needed should total about $11.4 million, with about 40 percent of the capital costs paid for by state grants.

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The school board places the cost to the average Summit taxpayer, with a home assessed at $410,000, at $140 per year. Bonding for the capital costs is expected to take 15 or 16 years to pay off.

However, at Tuesday’s common council meeting Councilman and board of school estimate member Robert Rubino said the total cost to the average taxpayer, with pension and other benefits added in could amount to $400 per year.

Rubino added, with the restoration of the full cost of federal payroll taxes and taxes on capital gains, Summit residents cannot afford the additional cost of fullday kindergarten.

Noting most of the city’s residents do not have children in the school system, he pointed out that having full-day kindergarten as the only option would restrict the choices of parents wishing to keep their children in a half-day program and the money spent on a full-day program could be used better in reducing the challenges of larger class size to be faced by Summit’s schools in the future.

In the overall scheme of life, the councilman asked, will fullday kindergarten be of that great a benefit to the city’s children.

Councilman David Bomgaars, who chairs the governing body’s finance committee, said the school district has not yet given him the full fiscal data he is seeking on the cost of the expanded program.

Bomgaars, a former six-year school body member and former president of the board, added that the timing of the proposal is wrong in the light of the cost of cleaning up after Sandy.

He also said Summit, with a cost of $8,467 per pupil, ranks among the most expensive school systems in Union County.

Bomgaars said the city’s schools should pay more attention to the trend of the times which is “to spend less and share services.”

“I am extremely concerned about the proposal from both a tax and a cost perspective,” said Councilman Patrick Hurley, “especially in light of the fact that Summit is one of the communities most severely affected by income redistribution.”

Councilman Thomas Getzendanner noted that three years ago the board quoted the cost of providing a tuition-based full-day kindergarten program at $7,500. He has consistently advocated that any full-day program should be paid for by tuition coming from the parents whose children attend the program.

Getzendanner added a tuition-based program would provide the school body with another source on non-tax revenue in an era during which state school aid is very uncertain.

“The schools are under many pressures,” Mayor Ellen Dickson said, “but we have reached a tipping point with the cost of county government crowding us out of our power to tax.”

The mayor added that the institution of a free, public school fullday kindergarten program could endanger many of the fine non-profit programs offered by such Summit institutions as Connections and the YMCA.

Councilman Albert Dill, Jr. added that fullday public kindergarten would provide a benefit in the present for which Summit taxpayers would be paying for 15 or 16 years.

In official action at Tuesday’s meeting, the council introduced a bond ordinance that would pay $365,000 as the city’s share of the capital costs of renovating the former New Providence First Aid Squad headquarters to accommodate the shared emergency dispatch center.

New Providence would pay $365,000 as its share of the capital cost of the renovations.

Bomgaars noted the $365,000 includes an $18,000 down payment and $15,000 for “soft costs.”  Soft costs usually include the fees of architects and other professional advisors on a project.

He added the $365,000 is part of $2 million allocated for the project in the governing body’s six-year capital plan. The remainder of the $2 million is uncommitted at this time, he noted.

Responding to Getzendanner, Bomgaars said $1.6 million in federal grants received for the project could not be allocated for “brick and mortar” items.

The public hearing on the bonding ordinance is scheduled for February 5, along with hearings on ordinances to further regulate parking along Sunset Drive for safety reasons and to increase a number of fees for use of city recreational facilities.

In his report, City Administrator Chris Cotter congratulated his assistant, Megan Champney, for being chosen to chair the Suburban Joint Insurance Fund, Fire Chief Joseph Houck for being elected to chair the state emergency service group and Chief Financial Officer Scott Olsen for attaining the sale of $13.3 million in city bonds at the rate of 0.1695 percent.

Dickson noted the city’s five elementary schools all have won New Jersey Healthy Living Awards, with Jefferson School attaining the silver level. The New Jersey secretary of agriculture will present the awards at 1 pm this Friday at Jefferson.

She also noted the city will have a full day of service to commemorate Martin Luther King Day on Monday including the reading to the “I have a dream” speech from 11 a.m. to noon and the presentation of Keeper of the Dream Awards to Cotter, Summit Community Programs Director Judith Josephs and Christy Hodde of the American Red Cross.

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