I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, July 8, 2010

S29 Conditional Veto

Here's Christie's conditional veto of s29.

Here's the original S29.

Caveat Lector: I AM NOT A LAWYER! Please correct me if I screwed up a reading of this bill, which is very likely. I wish I could find an expert to look at this and tell me in plain English what it means; why can't I find a report that boils this down?

Here's what I see:

- Did you know S29 is calling for consolidations of non-K-12 districts into K-12 regional districts? If you're in a K-8 district, there will be a vote over the next few years as to whether you should combine with your regional high school to make a K-12 district. That's a big deal, and I have seen no reporting on this aspect of the bill.

- S29 gives a lot of power to the county superintendents - they basically have carte blanch to cut a school budget if they think a district is not "efficient." The way I read S29, the county superintendents can tell a district that wants to go to the voters to go over the cap that they can't even have a vote.

The county superintendents are appointed by the State BOE, who are appointed by the governor, who talks a lot about "putting decisions into the hands of the voters." Uh-huh...

- Districts can submit questions to the voters to get additional funds for specific purposes; however, the county superintendent can, if he wants, block the vote. Again, what happened to letting the voters decide? (The original bill said the a town could still back the spending even if the voters rejected it; that's since been removed.)

- The original S29 said a district could submit a budget to the local voters to make up for a loss in state aid; the governor's veto says a district can't ask the local taxpayers to make up that loss in state aid money.

- The governor's veto also removes the adjustment in allowable tax levy for increases in special education costs over $40,000 per pupil, increases in tuition to other districts, capital outlay increases, and incremental increases in costs for opening a new school facility in the budget year. It seems the tuition part of this affects the consolidation called for above - maybe.

- Other adjustments to the levy the governor's veto took out: money needed to meet NJQSAC, the state's mandated district-wide assessment (hey, more mandates from Trenton that aren't paid for by the state - just what every district needs! And, you can't ask for money from your taxpayers to fund it!).

- In the original S29, the Education Commissioner could grant a waiver to a district to go over the cap for extraordinary circumstances; the governor's removed that. Christie's still not very happy with Bret Schundler, is he?

- Towns don't get to waive the entire cost of a health care or pension increase; they get to waive that part over 2.0%. The increase in health benefits costs can't exceed the increase in the State Health Benefits Plan (but who determines that - Horizon Blue Cross?).

So what does this mean?

First, there are still school votes - even if the school budget is under the cap. School districts still have an onus on them to get voters to approve their budgets that local units do not have.

Frankly, I think that's outrageous. It was outrageous when the 4% cap was approved, and it's even more outrageous now. Why should a school district have to play by different rules than a town? Why does a school that comes in under the cap have to go to the voters when a town does not?

Second, the law is not particularly explicit about what happens if a budget is rejected; my reading is that the process stays the same: if you're rejected, you go to the town, and they cut what they want, if anything.

How is this any different than what happens now?

Third, I see very little here to try to limit capital expenses. Will districts try to game the system and move as much as they can to capital lines in the budget? Again, I'm no expert, so I don't know what kind of leeway they have, but it's worth considering.

Fourth, the fact that this bill ties health care costs to the SHBP bothers me. Where is the incentive to drive down the cost of insurance? The press has got to start reporting on this - how much, exactly, have health care costs been driving our increases in taxes, and what is being done about it?

Fifth, how does empowering the dangerously-close-to-politically-appointed county superintendents do anything to make schools more efficient? Who are these people, who do they answer to, and why should they be trusted with this function? And why should they have any say over whether a vote goes to the public or not?

Finally - taking special ed out of this adjustment is going to radically change the game. It only takes one kid with severe ED to change not just a class, not just a grade, but an entire school. When schools stop placing these kids out of district because of costs, watch out - parents will not put up with that.

Lots to think about.

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