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Proposed law would allow school districts to raise taxes without a referendum

For members of Friends of Christina School District, a group of parents and community members that helped rally support for last week’s referendum, the failure of the referendum hurt, parent and FOCSD member Claire O’Neal said.

“It still feels terrible,” she said.

However, two days after Christina’s operating referendum failed, state legislators introduced a bill to address school funding.

The bill, sponsored primarily by Rep. Earl Jaques with co-sponsorships from Newark legislators Rep. Paul Baumbach and Sen. Dave Sokola, would allow school boards to raise school taxes by a limited amount without going out for referendum.

If passed, beginning in fiscal year 2021, districts would be able to increase taxes each year by 2 percent or an amount equal to the consumer price index increase, whichever is lower. A referendum would still be required if districts sought a larger increase or for capital projects.

“When school districts ask for money in a referendum, they ask for more than what the immediate need is because they know how hard it is to pass referendums, and they can’t come every year with a referendum,” Jaques said. “With this other system, if you only ask for what you need when you need it, it will be less money in the long run.”

He noted that by capping it at the consumer price index or 2 percent, it won’t be as much of a strain for people on fixed incomes.

“We’re kind of a victim of our own success. We campaigned hard to get seniors to move to our state. We’ve made their taxes pretty low, and they’re moving here. But once they get here, they do not want to raise taxes in any way or any reason. So that’s why referendums are increasingly hard to pass,” he continued. “We’re going to have to do something here.”

Jaques said he has support from the superintendents and others in education. He added that he is optimistic of the law passing, though he noted it won’t be on the education committee’s agenda until at least June.

Baumbach is sponsoring a companion bill that would shorten the term for school board members from five years to three years. School board members would also be compensated $100 by the Department of Education per meeting attended.

“What we find is, there’s times when the residents are unhappy with how a district is run. But they often, it appears, take it out on the referendums, which is taking it out on the students,” Baumbach said. “There’s not a lot of accountability and transparency on the makeup of the school boards with five-year terms.”

Baumbach explained that the pushback he has heard about shortening term limits has been that it is a volunteer position and that it takes time to learn the ropes.

By paying them a “nominal fee” for school board meetings, that would alter it from being a volunteer position, Baumbach said.

“We appreciate all the work that school board members do, and I think we should back that up with dollars,” he said. “I think that that’s the right way you show your priorities by showing how you spend your dollars.”

As for the learning curve the job requires, Baumbach noted that the governor only gets a four-year term.

“The school board member bill is a bill about public accountability, empowering the public to have a voice in how their public schools are run,” Baumbach said.

Mary Schorse, another Christina parent involved with supporting the referendum, said she supports a change to the system.

“I am right there with those legislators who are willing to stand up and do something and make a change,” Schorse said. “I am grateful to those legislators for doing something.”

O’Neal added that educating herself on how school funding work so that she could disseminate accurate information to other parents has taken her – and others’ – personal time and energy.

“It’s like I elect people to represent me in Washington, because I don’t have the time to study every in and out of healthcare, or estuary cleanliness or what have you,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous that everybody has to put up this much energy every three to five years just to ensure that their kids in schools get the money that they need to keep the teachers and keep the programs. And then they fail.”

Schorse added that the bills being proposed in tandem does put the onus on the school board more, but gives voters the chance to have their voice heard through electing officials.

“You take that whole ‘just keeping the lights on’ challenge/stress out,” she said. “And then, the focus is on what it should be: the people who are making decisions, not how much they’re making decisions about.”

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