WEST ORANGE, NJ – Members of the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) unanimously voted to approve returning $3 million of the $3.5 million from the additional 2018-19 state aid as property-tax relief for the township’s residents.
The vote was made on Monday after the board announced that the tax levy for the school portion of property taxes would decrease .49 percent for the 2018-19 school year, or a decrease of $91 in total property taxes for the average homeowner.
WOBOE member Sandra Mordecai said this is the second consecutive year that the board has returned additional state aid to local taxpayers. Last year, the board returned $500,000 of the $1.5 million in additional state aid, she said.
In explanation of how these funds became available, the board released the following statement on Sunday, prior to Monday’s public meeting.
“The additional state aid for the 2018-19 school year, an increase of 43.8 percent from the 2017-2018 school year, is coming to West Orange due to Governor Murphy’s signing of Senate Bill No. 2 (P.L. 2018, Ch. 67) into law. The board anticipates receiving this additional state aid in future years based on its current enrollment figures.”
Although Monday’s vote satisfied the many community members who had previously argued that the additional funds should be used for tax relief, some at the meeting expressed that they would have preferred for the aid to go toward upgrading West Orange Public Schools facilities and education programs.
Resident Jennifer Tunnicliffe said the West Orange principals have a “wish list” of how to use these additional funds to further improve educational programs in the township. She also argued for a more transparent process to determine how the future state aid should be used, stating that the board should have waited until there was great public input before announcing the decision to give $3 million back to the taxpayers.
Resident Terry Teigg-Scales asked the board to reconsider their vote, saying the additional funds can be better used to enhance educational programs and diversity training.
“I don’t need the $90; our schools do,” resident Micaela Bennett. “Our teachers deserve it. Our students deserve it. Our facilities deserve it…You can’t keep saying we’re underfunded, and then give back the money to the taxpayers.”
Speaking on behalf of the West Orange PTA school board, Lee Sutton said that all the members of the board who could be reached this summer agreed that the dollars should be used where they can make the greatest impact—“for our students,” she said.
Victor Garcia, a member of the Washington Elementary School PTA, said these dollars could be better used to upgrade facilities and improve security for his and other schools in the district. He said that the bathrooms at the Washington Elementary School need renovations, and that it also needs a security guard in the morning with the growing traffic in the area.
In explaining their decision, the board members consistently said that property tax relief is needed in West Orange at this time.
“Now that we’ve passed our budget, I don’t think we should spend more,” said board member Ken Alper.
Mordecai added that approximately 17 percent of West Orange’s population is made up of senior citizens, and that many of them are living on fixed incomes.
“This year, we should give back to the residents,” said Mordecai, who also said this helps to adjust for the tax increases over the past few years.
“We have a very high effective tax rate,” said board member Irving Schwarzbaum. “We will lose more and more citizens if we don’t decrease taxes.”
Citing the board’s responsibility to the taxpayers, board member Mark Robertson said that many seniors are being forced to move out of West Orange because of the tax burden—made even worse by new federal law that eliminates fully deducting real estate taxes over $10,000, he said.
“We are trying to find a balance,” said Robertson. “It’s complicated. At what point do we think about the taxpayers.”
Board president Ronald Charles said that there is now approximately $5 million in the Reserve Fund for the West Orange Public Schools, and now is the time “to be fiscally responsible for the West Orange taxpayers.”
The next WOBOE meeting will be held on Aug. 27.