On Monday night, members of a school funding tax force told South Orange leaders that the town was paying more than its fair share of the South Orange-Maplewood School District tax levy.
The funding formula for the district, based on equalized property valuation but not student population, has the town paying 43% of the budget contribution despite the fact that only 33% of students are from South Orange. (South Orange has 43% of the two towns’ equalized valuation, so it pays 43% of taxes.)
Read about and see the presentation here.
However, two local leaders — one from Maplewood and one from South Orange — say that the most significant school funding equity fight is on the state level.
Greg Lembrich, who was recently sworn in as a member of the Maplewood Township Committee, posted on the Village Green Facebook page that it “would be premature to consider, much less take, any action on this issue until after the two towns complete their joint reassessment this year.”
But more importantly, Lembrich noted, “This is not a local policy issue, but rather a matter of state law. Trenton is not going to consider legislative action to address one district; it would need to consider a proposal that would apply statewide. And I think both Maplewood and South Orange can agree that, if Trenton is going to consider school funding issues, the highest priorities should be on fully funding the SFRA [School Funding Reform Act] formula and/or redistributing state education aid in a more equitable way that would help our entire district.”
Lembrich also pointed out that since “school taxes are not tied to use, but to property values … homeowners without children, as well as parents who send their kids to private schools, all pay the same school taxes nonetheless.”
Lembrich further explained: “Even if you put home values aside, South Orange has approximately 40% of the population of the two communities (roughly 16,000 out of 40,000), so you would expect South Orange to pay about 40% of the school taxes (all else being equal). Thus, the relevant ‘disparity’ in that analysis would be closer to 3 points than 10.”
Jeff Bennett, a South Orange resident who recently retired from the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education and has been a proponent of school funding reform, said that while he found South Orange’s taxes “beyond excessive,” the target for reform “pragmatically and philosophically” should be the “completely unfair and irrational distribution of state aid. Our own state representatives need to prioritize changing the aid distribution more than they have.”
(Bennett has written about “myth of fair school aid” in an opinion piece for Village Green. Read it here.)
Bennett also noted, “If the SOMSD had a per pupil tax apportionment (or some hybrid) then Maplewood’s taxes would become much higher than South Orange’s and Maplewood’s ability to sustain that tax burden would be the limiting factor in Board of Education decisions on the tax rate. Over time this would restrict South Orange-Maplewood’s ability to provide local money for its schools.” In short: the high burden of local taxes to support schools is untenable; the remedy must be a reallocation of state aid to districts across the state.
(As an aside, Bennett noted that one consolidated district — Manchester Regional/North Haledon — did win relief for its school funding formula in a 2013 decision. Read about it here.)
On the whole, Bennett said the equalized valuation system was “internally fair”:
“I see South Orange’s higher per pupil costs as akin to a wealthier neighborhood’s higher per pupil costs. The boundaries between Maplewood and South Orange are totally artificial and as long as property is assessed fairly and everyone pays the same amount per dollar of property I think the system is internally fair.
“What is unfair to South Orange and other wealthier places within economically diverse school districts is that their taxpayers are being asked to take up the slack for what is the state’s responsibility to provide compensating resources for low property wealth in certain sections of a community. Why should someone with a $500,000 house in, say, Bernardsville pay lower taxes than someone with a $500,000 house in South Orange? It’s unfair, and this disparity exists because some towns have less property wealth per student. Someone with a $500,000 property in Hoboken would pay only $1,825 in school taxes. Someone in Deal would pay $475. Someone in South Orange-Maplewood would pay $9,325.”