Jackson school board seeks support for budget
BY JOYCE BLAY
The Jackson Board of Education adopted a $121,132,261 budget for the 2005-06 school year following a public hearing held March 30. If voters approve the proposed budget on April 19, school taxes would increase by 12.55 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
No board member voted against the adoption of the budget. Board member Gus Acevedo was not present at the March 30 meeting.
The 2004-05 school year budget totals $115,067,650.
The tax levy in 2004-05 was $45,927,677. The 2005-06 budget calls for a tax levy of $56,826,103. The tax levy is what Jackson property owners directly pay to support the community’s schools.
Debt service will decrease from $8.7 million in 2004-05 to $8.6 million in 2005-06. How-ever, the debt service fund tax levy will increase from $6 million in 2004-05 to $6.1 million in 2005-06.
Under the proposed budget, a taxpayer with a home assessed at $150,000 would pay $15.69 a month more ($188 more per year) in school taxes in 2005-06 than in 2004-05, according to information provided by the district.
A school district spokeswoman said that, according to the Jackson tax assessor’s office, the current average home assessment in the community is $147,800.
The owner of a home assessed at $200,000 would pay $251 more in school taxes, the owner of a home assessed at $300,000 would pay $376 more in school taxes, and the owner of a home assessed at $400,000 would pay $502 more in school taxes next year if the budget is approved with the 12.55-cent increase.
Administrators attributed the increase to a number of factors: state aid that has not increased beyond the $48.3 million provided in 2004-05 even as Jackson’s enrollment continues to grow at a rate of about 312 pupils per year, and a residential housing market that continues to expand.
The net result for Jackson’s school district has been continual expansion. The latest school to open will be Jackson Liberty High School, which is expected to welcome students to class in February 2006 if funding is in place at that time.
The total cost of the additional staff needed to open JLHS in February 2006 would come to $1.3 million, or 2.25 cents of the proposed 12.55-cent increase contained in the 2005-06 budget.
That prospect did not sit well with residents who spoke during the meeting’s public forum.
Gilbert Guttentag asked why the district had considered installing more expensive terrazzo flooring in the new high school instead of tiled flooring.
“I would like to know who the brain trust was who [installed terrazzo flooring] and why they’re still in our employ,” he said. “This is the stupidest idea I’ve heard in all my years.”
Board Vice President Martin Spielman did not respond to Guttentag’s demand for the name of the individual who had authorized the installation of the flooring, but did confirm that terrazzo flooring had been installed in parts of the building, which is still under construction.
“In buildings this size, it’s not unusual to put them in,” Superintendent of Schools Thomas Gialanella said. “It’s efficient in the long run.”
Gialanella said tiled floors wore out sooner than terrazzo floors.
“You’re spinning things,” Guttentag responded. “I went to school in New York City and the tiled floors there lasted 70 years.”
Resident Michael Sachs said it is time for the Jackson Education Association (JEA) to acknowledge that taxpayers can not afford to pay the entire cost of the union’s health benefits by agreeing to pay a percentage of those costs.
Another resident criticized the expenditure of $2 million for the district’s secretaries, as well as $97,000 for two ROTC instructors.
Board finance chairman Marvin Krakower said the salaries of the two ROTC instructors were partially funded by the state. He said the instructors were college graduates who taught 200 students in the program.
Krakower said there are more than 10,000 public school students in the district and that the secretaries are needed to perform the work generated by the pupils.
Resident Nicholas Antonoff asked the board about the proposed budget’s debt service.
“The debt service went up because the state is giving us less money,” Krakower said.
Antonoff said that despite the board’s figures showing that the $8,542 cost per student was lower than the state average of $11,215, the actual cost was closer to $12,000 when transportation was included.
“How do you want us to transport our students?” asked Krakower. “By bicycle?”
The audience burst into laughter.
“There still isn’t enough money to pay” for all the programs you want, Antonoff said.
“You can’t justify [the expense]. Why are your budgets being voted down, Mr. President?” Antonoff asked board president Michael Hanlon.
Jackson voters have not approved a proposed school budget since 2001.
“We’re supposed to set our goals high,” said board member Dan Gross. “Hopefully, we have the right goals and taxpayers can afford [their cost].”
“You can’t keep increasing property taxes ad infinitum,” said Antonoff.
Spielman said that until state legislators provide a mechanism for funding school budgets through a means other than property taxes, the board has no other choice.
Hanlon asked Antonoff to show the board how it was wasting taxpayers’ money.
“The way you’re going, taxpayers in Jackson are going to turn out the lights and close the door,” Antonoff said, suggesting that residents would sell their homes if school taxes continued to climb.
Judy Kohler said the district’s escalating budget was the result of Jackson’s unexpected surge in population growth in recent years.
“What we should do is [attract] businesses to take down” the cost of education, she said.
Guttentag said the district’s request for more money was not justified based on the SAT scores achieved by Jackson students.
“These people may think their children are getting a good education, but its sub-par,” he said.
JEA President Delores Harvey said the district’s teachers had encouraged students to rise to their highest potential.
“I would hope that the people in this town would look at the total package we’re producing and that package is something to be proud of,” Harvey said.
Board members closed the meeting by encouraging residents to pass the budget on April 19.
“We cut a lot out of the budget,” said board member John Morvay. “We can’t cut anymore. Please support the budget. Thank you.”
“Is 12.5 cents a lot?” Gross asked. “You can’t make a phone call with 12.5 cents anymore. Good school districts make your property values [go up]. Please come out and support your schools.”
“We can’t afford it,” Antonoff said from his seat in the audience.
Hanlon said if residents do not vote for the proposed budget, “we’ll be losing programs and that will break my heart. There were things cut out [already] that I did not want to see cut out. We’re playing catch up [and] we need your support.”