Friday, July 12, 2024

In Debate Over Tax Increase, Blairstown BOE Aims for Budget Transparency

Next year’s budget

In its regular monthly meeting on June 20, the Blairstown Elementary board of education focused most of its time on a single subject: next year’s budget.

The board had already approved a tentative budget for next year in an April 25 meeting. That was before the state government approved a new temporary measure for schools affected by funding cuts.

While some schools have had a portion of their slashed aid restored, Blairstown was not so lucky this year. Instead, it was offered the ability to raise the tax levy beyond the usual 2% maximum.

Blairstown draws the overwhelming majority of its funding from taxes.

In fact, taxes make up 83% of Blairstown Elementary School’s budget, a much higher proportion than the average New Jersey school. A tax increase would have an especially significant impact on the school’s budget.

The budget approved in April saw a tax increase of 3.73%, an amount already above the normal maximum increase of 2%. Blairstown Elementary could do this with its banked cap, a school’s ability to increase taxes beyond the usual 2% ceiling if it had not used its maximum allowed increase in previous years. The tax levy increase had become necessary since Blairstown Elementary had lost over $1 million in state equalization aid over the past six years.

Now, the board had to consider whether it would increase the tax levy even further, and if so, by what percent.

Over the course of nearly an hour, the board went back and forth in a lengthy discussion.

Superintendent Patrick Ketch acknowledged the effect that six years of budget cuts had on the school.

“It got tight this year. I don’t want to be cutting staff,” he said. “At the same time, I’m human. Nobody likes to see their taxes go up.”

A Blairstown Elementary School teacher in attendance pointed out that North Warren Regional High School has had several complaints about tax increases during its own board meetings.

“They’re saying, you’re taxing me to death,” she said.

Board president Jeremy Cook played the calm mediator throughout the exhaustive and at times passionate discussion.

“Most people in Jersey already feel that they pay a lot,” Cook said. “These are both sides, and this is what we have to decide as a board.”

From the beginning of the discussion, board member Deborah Fuhrmann argued passionately on the side of the tax increase.

“I don’t want my taxes to go up,” she said. “I don’t want to pay any more than I have to pay. I also know, living where we live, we pay a fraction of other communities. And the reason their property values are higher is because their schools are phenomenal. So let’s be that. Let’s be that Blue Ribbon district. North Warren right now is number one in Warren County. Let’s be the number one elementary school in Warren County.”

Superintendent Ketch reached out to other school districts to see if they had chosen to increase their own tax levies. After hearing back, he reported that Knowlton Elementary did not approve their tax increase, Frelinghuysen did choose to increase, and Stillwater had not.

The first choice was whether to increase the tax levy at all. Every board member voted yes.

The next question was how much.

“It’s the future that I’m thinking about,” Ketch said. “Next year will be tight, but now…”

He displayed a slide that showed what the school’s new budget would look like with each proposed tax increase.

“Next year got a whole lot easier. We won’t be sitting there going ‘Cut this, cut this.’”

Board member Kevin Doell acknowledged that a major part of the decision was optics. A tax increase would not have a significant impact on each individual household, but the fact that the board wanted to raise taxes at all would sit poorly with many voters.

As Cook mentioned, other area schools have attempted to raise taxes via voter referendum in the past– and “they got crucified,” Cook said. With other schools in the area foregoing the possibility of this new tax increase completely, a large tax increase at Blairstown Elementary would stand out, and not positively.

Fuhrman argued against this line of thinking.

“This is our school,” she said. “I don’t care what other schools are doing. I care about Blairstown. We’ve got to stop comparing ourselves to other schools.”

The board considered five possible tax increases that would affect the school’s budget for years to come. Photo by Chip O'Chang.
The board considered five possible tax increases that would affect the school’s budget for years to come. Photo by Chip O’Chang.

The board needed five votes to approve the amount of increased taxation, with five options to vote on. The minimum increase would increase the tax levy by 5.34%, the maximum by 9.69%. After several rounds of discussion, the board eventually mustered five votes for the middle level, an increase of 8.56%.

To get to that vote, the board had discussed their options for 55 minutes. There may have been a few exasperated glances exchanged, a few sighs, as board members returned to the same slides and the same points.

But there was also a sense that this is how it should be: the budget discussed thoughtfully, carefully, and in public, despite the certainty that there will be detractors and social media rants no matter what decision is made.

“There are strong feelings on this, and that’s okay,” Cook said as the discussion concluded. “But I think we represent our community well when we think twice.”

At the time of writing, the board was scheduled to meet on Tuesday, July 2, to vote on the revised budget.

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.