Talk to mayors and council members, and they will tell you that high property taxes are the biggest complaint of citizens all over the state. But what too few voters understand is that the bulk of their property tax bills go toward the cost of paying for public schools.
That’s why any meaningful plan to achieve property tax relief has to start with a discussion of school property taxes.
Two of the biggest problems are the failure of the state government to live up to its obligation to provide 100 percent of the school aid required under the 2008 School Funding Reform Act and the inherent unfairness of the way that state school aid is provided from town to town.
That’s why Assemblywoman Joann Downey and I have joined with Senate President Steve Sweeney to introduce legislation charging a blue-ribbon commission with the responsibility of coming up with a fair state aid formula and a plan to provide every school district with 100 percent of the state school aid to which it is entitled.
Our plan would pump $500 million more into state aid to school districts to hold down property taxes over the next five years and distribute all state school aid fairly.
It starts with fairness.
The 2008 school funding law was better than what preceded it. It created a new school funding formula designed to ensure that state aid would follow the child, and that every child — from the most affluent suburb to the poorest city — would receive the funding necessary to provide the quality education needed to compete for jobs in our new economy.
The problem was that back-room political compromises made the system unfair. First, the Legislature put more than $680 million into a special category called “hold harmless” adjustment aid that guaranteed that no school district would receive less state aid than it got in 2007 — no matter how much their tax ratable base grew and no matter how much their school population dropped.
Second, the Legislature put an “enrollment growth cap” on the amount of additional aid it would provide to towns with fast-growing numbers of students, forcing those school districts to raise school property taxes in towns already burdened with increasing costs for municipal services because of their growing populations.
With that unfair school funding formula locked in place for the last eight years and the Christie administration failing to properly fund the state school aid formula, disparities between school districts got worse and worse. As a result, taxpayers in some school districts are getting just 50 percent of the state aid they should be receiving and other towns are getting twice as much.
Why should the rapidly growing Freehold Borough School District get $13 million less than required, Long Branch get $9.6 million less and Red Bank be underfunded by $6.5 million while the state continues to pump hundreds of millions of dollars per year into big cities with booming economies.
Fixing that unfairness is the purpose of the State School Aid Funding Fairness Commission that Sweeney, Downey and I are seeking to create.
Our legislation passed the Senate by a 29-6 vote, with 18 Democrats voting in favor along with 11 Republicans — a bipartisan show of unity that reflects the fundamental fairness of its approach to suburbs, cities and rural communities alike.
Our goal is to establish a school funding system that provides state aid on a fair and equitable basis as enrollments grow or shrink, as property tax values rise and fall, and as the needs of the student population change.
What we are doing this time is taking the model established by Congress to handle the politically difficult problem of deciding which military bases to expand and which to close. To take politics out of the mix, a Base Realignment and Closure Commission was established to give Congress annual recommendations that had to be approved without any changes by an up-or-down vote.
Our blue-ribbon commission will hold hearings throughout the state, revise the school funding formula to ensure that it is fair and equitable for students and taxpayers in every school district, and submit proposed recommendations and legislation to the governor and Legislature by next June for an up-or-down vote. No legislative commissions with members protecting their own special interests. No more backroom deals.
Our approach has been endorsed by the editorial boards of the three largest newspapers — The Asbury Park Press, the Star-Ledger and the Record of Bergen County — by leading education advocacy groups and by teachers, superintendents, principals, school board members, mayors and freeholders across the state.
Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, D-Monmouth, represents the 11th Legislative District.