Tax-relief summit slated

The Garden State Coalition of Schools will address property tax relief for state residents at a Feb. 11 forum.

By: Sarah Winkelman
   The Garden State Coalition of Schools, a grass-roots group that promotes equitable educational public policy, is holding a summit to address property tax relief for state residents, an issue that has been weighing on the minds of residents for years.
   The summit will be held Feb. 11 at 7:30 p.m. at Harrington Middle School in Mount Laurel.
   "The summit is meant to get people together to discuss the problem of overtaxing," said Geoff Lewen, a resident of Washington Township and a member of the Parent Network, a branch of the GSCS that aims at getting the word out about what GSCS is doing. Formed in 1992, the GSCS represents 120 school districts in the state, primarily suburban districts.
   "This is bigger than just one community. The summit gives people the opportunity to try to solve the problem at a smaller level."
   Mr. Lewen said the summit is open to anyone interested in addressing the problem. The Washington Township Parent Network has sent invitations to the members of the Washington Township Committee and to the representatives from the 30th Legislative District.
   "We want to get as many people involved as we can get," he said. "We want to show strong support at the grass-roots level and come up with ideas on how to fund quality education."
   There will be a panel discussing how to fund education in New Jersey as well as a question and answer session.
   "We want people to get a sense that the problems in the community are not unique," Mr. Lewen said. "We want to stress that everyone has the same problem and come up with some solutions and get a good discussion going back and forth."
   Mr. Lewen said he thinks funding education through property taxes is creating divisions in local communities.
   "Seniors and those on fixed incomes resent families because educating the children increases their property tax burden," he said. "Everyone seems to resent the urban districts for the funds they receive. Education has become politicized."
   Mr. Lewen said the coalition has come up with a few suggestions for education funding relief, including a legislative session to address the problem instead of a constitutional convention.
   "A constitutional convention is not necessary or appropriate," he said. "The problems we face are legislative, not constitutional. We need to focus on reform at the state level. There is no local solution anymore to providing tax relief to residents and a quality education for our kids."
   He added that state-mandated special education programs should be funded by the state, since they are the ones mandating the programs.
   "Local school boards have no option but to comply with state requirements for education," he said. "If the state funds this portion of the school’s budget then the community’s share will be limited to those programs it chooses to offer and which are deemed above and beyond the standard."
   Part of the problem, Mr. Lewen said, is that tax relief cannot result from voting down school budgets or cutting educational programs.
   "Doing that only hurts the children," he said. "What we need is for the state and federal governments to take responsibility for their mandates and fund the education we are required to provide by law.
   "As a parent and a Washington Township resident, I try to be as involved as possible. The GSCS gave me the opportunity to get involved and help solve the problem of how to fund schools without overtaxing the public."