EDITORIAL: Tax policy is bigger concern than SCI probe

EDITORIAL:State should not blame local school districts for high taxes, they should blame themselves.

   Maybe it’s just a coincidence.
   Maybe there’s no connection at all between the McGreevey administration’s recent attempts to lay the blame for New Jersey’s high property taxes on costly, inefficient local school districts and the State Commission of Investigation’s sudden interest in the salaries and benefits paid to selected school administrators around the state.
   Maybe the letters sent last week to the Princeton Regional, Montgomery and South Brunswick school districts demanding information on how much they pay their superintendents and what kinds of benefits they receive were inspired by SCI members and staff with no regard for Gov. James E. McGreevey’s recent political pronouncements.
   And maybe the fact that these letters were sent the same week the governor used his State of the State address to call for limits on how much school districts are allowed to spend on administrative costs was purely a matter of chance — and the superintendents in the targeted districts, who suddenly feel like witches in 17th-century Salem, are just being paranoid.
   We hope so, for a couple of reasons.
   First and foremost, the SCI has a longstanding reputation for independence from politics in general and the governor’s office in particular. That reputation may already be sullied by the appearance, if not the reality, that its investigation of school governance is in some way tied to Gov. McGreevey’s political agenda.
   Second, the governor’s recent focus on local school districts as the principal cause of high property taxes is myopic and misguided. While it’s true that running the public schools accounts for the lion’s share of a homeowner’s property-tax bill in New Jersey, it’s also true that state government picks up only about 40 percent of the cost of public education — one of the lowest percentages in the country. Virtually every study commission, task force and blue-ribbon panel that has studied this matter over the past 30 years has concluded the same thing: Property taxes are high in this state not because local schools spend so much but because the state contributes so little.
   State aid to local school districts has essentially been frozen for the first two years of the McGreevey administration, and will likely increase by no more than 1 percent in the coming fiscal year. We don’t blame the governor for this action; by law, the state budget cannot operate at a deficit, and the administration has had no choice but to act responsibly in balancing its expenditures with its revenues.
   But to then turn around and blame local school districts for increasing property taxes to meet their rising costs is disingenuous. If the governor were to embrace the so-called "millionaires’ tax," placing a modest surcharge on the state income tax paid by residents who earn more than $1 million a year, and use the proceeds to make the level of state school aid in New Jersey remotely comparable to what it is in other states, the burden of reducing property taxes would be placed where it properly belongs. And the demonizing of local school districts and their administrators would be exposed for what it really is — a shameless strategy to substitute scapegoating for genuine property-tax reform.
   If the SCI is able to conduct a thorough, objective, independent investigation of administrative expenditures in selected New Jersey school districts, and come up with reasonable conclusions and useful recommendations to eliminate waste and inefficiency, more power to it. In that case, our local school districts and their superintendents have nothing to fear. In the McGreevey administration and its attitude toward tax policy, however, they — and we — have more than a little cause for concern.