Polls were open Tuesday in Lakewood for a special referendum designed to help close the gap in the beleaguered school district’s deficit. Representatives of the town’s mosdos have urged the public to vote against the measure, which would increase taxes across the board, and it is widely thought to have little chance of passing. Should the measure fail, roughly 10,000 public and non-public school students will lose state-funded busing in a month from now.
While there is wide agreement that a solution needs to be found for Lakewood’s funding woes, askanim are in agreement that a tax increase is not the way to go.
“A referendum would only be putting a band-aid on a more serious wound,” Rabbi Avi Schnall, director of Agudath Israel’s New Jersey division, told Hamodia. “All it does is open the door to continuously adding to our tax bill while not making the actual problem any better.”
A letter jointly issued by the Ichud Hamosdos and Lakewood Vaad urged voters to come out against the measure, stressing that tax increases would be permanent, while only saving “courtesy” busing temporarily and ultimately making a small dent in what is now estimated to be a large shortfall.
The measure was proposed by state monitor Michael Azzara in November when it came to the fore that the district’s deficit had climbed to $9.5 million. It has since been estimated to be closer to $12 million. The school board voted against the measure, but its vote was overruled by the monitor and the issue was put up for a public vote.
Immediately in the balance is busing for students who live within two miles of their schools, which accounts for roughly 7,100 non-public students and 2,700 from public schools.
Prior to the summer, leaders of mosdos had agreed to a “tiering” program that would have significantly reduced costs and saved the program. However, when bus company bids came in at rates up to 40 percent higher than in previous years, the school’s financial calculations were thrown into chaos.
If passed, the referendum would raise $6.2 million dollars and cost most tax payers $200–$400 yearly.
Rabbi Schnall said that while the actual tax increase may seem small, it sets a dangerous precedent of punishing citizens for the state’s errors and fails to address the issue at hand.
A few years ago, New Jersey “froze” its funding formula, meaning that the amounts given each year have not been adjusted to increased school populations since then. In addition to the rise in non-public school children from the Orthodox community, public school enrollment has increased by 500–600 since the freeze.
While the state has interceded to help certain districts in financial distress, Lakewood’s $90 million tax revenue is viewed by Trenton as sufficient to cover its 5,000 public school students. This does not account for the 25,000 non-public school students who receive financing for busing, special education and a smattering of other services.
“The debt issue can only be addressed if the state corrects the funding formula,” said Rabbi Schnall. “If the problem is to be addressed, they either need to unfreeze the formula or admit that the district serves 30,000 kids.”