Bd. member decries new budget law


Staff Writer

  • HOWELL — The state’s new 2.5 percent spending cap on school budgets is likely to create a hardship in Howell, according to Robert Antonaccio, the Board of Education’s finance committee chairman.
  • The cap limit, which became law in July, limits budget increases to 2.5 percent instead of 3 percent, and also reduces the amount of money permitted to be kept in the district’s surplus account from 6 percent to 3 percent of the total budget.

    Antonaccio said school districts will be hard-pressed to conduct business under the new regulations.

    Howell’s K-8 district is operating in the 2004-05 school year with a $97 million budget.

    “It [the new law] limits school districts and how they spend and transfer money,” Antonaccio said. “We’ll know better as we go through the budgeting process how it will affect us. By then we’ll know how they’ve finalized the implementation of the bill.”

    Antonaccio said the work on the 2005-06 school year budget will start later this month and continue through to the end of December. The budget will be presented to voters in the April school election.

    Previously, any amount of surplus funds could be rolled over into the next year’s budget, he said. The new law (often referred to by its state Senate bill No. 1701) requires that any surplus in excess of the established limit be returned to property owners as tax relief.

    Antonaccio said permission will have to be obtained from the state before the surplus can be used to offset other expenses.

    He said the state is still “working out the kinks” and will be posting updates on its Internet Web site on how the new spending cap law is to be implemented.

    “The problem now is the state wants to play Big Brother,” Antonaccio said.

    Under the new spending cap, if a school district wants to exceed its previous budget by more than 2.5 percent it must get permission from the state education commissioner for each request in order to make the needed transfer of funds.

    “We don’t need the state looking over our shoulders on how we spend money,” Antonaccio said. “We’ll let them know it ties the hands of the districts.”

    According to Antonaccio, collective bargaining alone will make it impossible to adhere to a 2.5 percent cap and will negatively impact the district’s hiring of needed administration personnel.

    “If you have a 4 percent teacher’s [salary] increase, how can you cap at 2.5 percent?” he asked.

    Antonaccio said items such as budget transfers and courtesy busing also will be negatively affected if the 2.5 percent cap holds. He said the board may have to look to cut services elsewhere in the budget in order to continue to provide courtesy busing.

    Courtesy busing refers to bus transportation that is provided to students who live close enough to a school so that bus service for them is not mandated by the state. The district extends the bus service as a “courtesy” rather than requiring the student to walk to school.

    In the three months since S-1701 became law, critics of the legislation have said that while it may produce short-term property tax relief, they believe it will create significant problems for school boards that are forced to deal with growing enrollments and the desire to provide certain programs and courtesy bus service.

    Proponents of the law have said they believe it will be a way to bring public school spending under control.

    One state assemblyman has introduced a bill to repeal the new law, which was signed by Gov. James E. McGreevey during the summer as part of a property tax relief package.