Is that a ‘fee’ in Montgomery or a $100 tax


   Anyone laboring under the illusion that the state’s 4 percent cap on property-tax increases is a solution to New Jersey’s school financing dilemma should pay close attention to what is happening in Montgomery Township.
   In an effort to help close a $2.1 million budget gap, Montgomery school officials had been openly exploring the possibility of charging students as much as $250 to participate in extra-curricular activities.
   Many parents spoke out against the idea. We agreed with them.
   So the superintendent and the school board revised the plan. Instead of charging only those students actually participating in extra-curricular activities, it will charge $100 to every household with children in grades 7 through 12, whether they participate in activities or not.
   Having dodged a potential charge of $250 per child, per activity, some parents attending Wednesday night’s Montgomery school board meeting greeted this new scheme as a relative bargain. It is, after all, a lot cheaper, especially if you have more than one child participating in activities.
   Others we’ve heard from, however, are having a "wait-a-minute" experience. As far as they’re concerned, the school board has turned the unfortunate activity fee into a secondary school surtax, one that, by definition and design, discriminates against parents with children in the upper grades.
   Neither the New Jersey School Boards Association nor the state Department of Education sees a legal problem with this somewhat novel approach. Of more immediate importance is the fact that Somerset County’s school superintendent, David Livingston, also sees no problem with it. He is the one now reviewing Montgomery’s proposed budget.
   The one part of the Montgomery School Board’s argument for this new levy that we agree with is that the state government is ultimately to blame for the situation. By ducking the heavy lifting it would take to truly overhaul New Jersey’s school financing system, Gov. Corzine and members of the Assembly and Senate have literally left school boards to their own devices.
   When it comes to devices, however, we must observe that it would be quite peculiar to be presented with a screwdriver and be told that it was actually a hammer.
   Whatever they choose to call it, Montgomery’s school board members have presented a portion of their community with a new tax. If it flies, expect to see a lot more school districts attempting to pound nails with screwdrivers.