Campaign News

April 6th: Hoboken Taxpayers Deserve a Break.

HOBOKEN, NJ, April 6, 2010 — When voters go to the polls on Tuesday, April 20, the Real Results team urges them to vote NO on the school budget and yes for Kathleen Tucker (Line 5A), Perry Lin (7A), Liz Markevitch (10A) and John Forsman (2B). “There is a clear difference between Real Results and Kids First," says Lin. "We think the Hoboken taxpayers deserve a break, and Kids First doesn't.”

By passing a $57.9 million budget, the board voted against cutting school taxes for Hoboken residents for the year beginning July 1, despite a clear promise by the Kids First ticket a year ago that taxes would be cut. In fact, taxes may go up: The school tax rate has not yet been set, pending the outcome of the numerous tax appeals that have been filed. “After the city’s 47% overall tax hike a year ago, homeowners are going to be very disappointed that they’re not getting at least a cut in school taxes this year,” says Markevitch.

Yes, the board did lose $2.4 million in state aid. But Hoboken's school budget is so bloated that the board filled most of the gap with just attrition and retirements. In fact, more than $900,000 of the lost state aid was offset with one-shot revenues, including a dubious sale and leaseback of the textbooks that the district already owns. This pawning of our textbooks is eerily reminiscent of the financial gimmicks former Mayor Dave Roberts used to balance the city budget before it blew up, especially the ill-fated leaseback deal for the Observer Highway municipal garage.

Tucker, Lin, Markevitch and Forsman believe that if the board had really focused on the fat in the budget, it would have been easy for Kids First to keep its tax-cut promise. But where was the hard look at where the money goes? Real Results isn't alone in thinking that the board could have gone further. At the March 30 budget hearing, School Business Administrator Robert Davis said, "Can further cuts be made? Absolutely! Without question! You can always cut more in a budget." Davis said he could cut "$1.5 million in 5 minutes; it's not hard to do."

One big way to cut costs is to contract out services. The previous administration brought in a private company to run the cafeteria, but Kids First missed an opportunity to take it further. Districts around the state are realizing substantial savings by contracting out services such as transportation, business operations, child-study teams, occupational/physical therapy, security, technology and especially custodial work. Schools don't need to be the cleaning business, or in many other of these operations. Why won't the board consider these options? Is it because they want to protect the jobs of friends and family? Board members have relatives and campaign contributors working in several of those departments. "We should concentrate on our school system's main purpose--educating Hoboken children--and leave some of these other jobs to people who know how to best manage them," says Tucker.

Ironically, a year ago the board cut taxes by 2.81% and conducted a round of layoffs. Back then Hoboken’s old guard controlled the board and Kids First ran for office promising to be much more aggressive in weeding out wasteful spending and lowering taxes.  “No one wants to go back to those days, but it’s very sad that Kids First couldn’t even cut taxes as much as the old board did, a board that was famous for spending money,” says Forsman.  

In addition, Kids First claims that it balanced the budget without touching educational programs. But that's just not true. They eliminated the rigorous International Baccalaureate (IB) program at Hoboken High School without any public discussion. The IB program has been a major draw for parents deciding whether to send their children to the high school. Kids First has talked vaguely about replacing IB with Advanced Placement (AP) classes, but there are no concrete plans to do that yet. This was another example of how Kids First talks about community involvement, but makes big decisions behind closed doors.

Here's what else Real Results would push to do:

  • Freeze most overtime pay.

 

  • Renegotiate health-care contracts and consider new vendors without cutting benefits.
  • Immediately re-register all students with the aim of sending back to their home districts the estimated 200 out-of-town students whose parents have illegally enrolled them in Hoboken schools.

 

  • Complete negotiations on an administrators' contract that results in actual savings for the district and not greater costs, as is the case with the recently signed custodians' contract. That deal, negotiated by Kids First, awards a 10.9% raise over three years, increased pay for longevity, yet another day off and a $700 clothing allowance.
  • Cut the $1.2 million transportation budget by eliminating most overtime and other wasteful spending. A thorough audit early last year exposed endless examples of misguided and just plain dumb spending. But next year's budget calls for a $100,000 increase in the transportation budget, instead of a cut.

 

  • Reduce the especially free-spending athletic budget, partly by finding cheaper sources of equipment and supplies and seeking standard sponsorship arrangements with well-known companies. Some of the savings should go toward starting new teams, especially for the middle-school grades. The school board is spending $857,000 this year to support 17 teams in 14 sports with none for the middle-school grades. In comparison, larger Madison High spends $805,000 on 57 teams, including many in middle school. 
  • Cancel the $225,000 plan to give a laptop to each 8th and 9th grader to take home next year. This poorly thought-out program threatens to become a boondoggle because inadequate provisions have been made for maintaining and keeping track of the 250 laptops, and it all but commits the school board to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in the years ahead as students reach 8th grade and expect laptops of their own. For next year only, this money comes from Washington and not Hoboken taxes, but it can be used for items that tax money must now be spent on. These items include a much-needed new phone system, an upgrade to the district’s computer network, additional desktop computers for classrooms to replace ones that are up to five years old, white boards for the classrooms, and the continuation of tutoring of struggling students that began last year.
     

Unlike Kids First, we're not afraid to shake up the status quo.  We will examine every additional line of the budget to see where the rest of the fat has settled. 

One avenue the board never pursued was to talk to the unions about a salary freeze. Our teachers and custodians are already among the best-paid in the state and come July 1, the teachers union collects a 4.3% raise for its members and the custodians get 3.8% more. This is an action recommended by both Gov. Chris Christie and the NJ School Boards Association--two players that are not often on the same side. The association says almost all boards in the first and second years of their contracts are talking to their local unions about doing this. Several districts have already agreed on this, and to encourage more districts to freeze salaries, Christie is offering to reduce their cuts in state aid. Hoboken, which is in the second year of its contract, never even broached the topic. A complete freeze would have saved $1.2 million; paying perhaps half the scheduled raise could have saved $600,000. No wonder the teachers union is solidly behind Kids First and this overstuffed budget. When former Kids First board member Maureen Sullivan asked if the administration had even considered reopening the negotiations, all the other board members could do was laugh. Sullivan has endorsed the Real Results ticket.

The board also never discussed with the unions having all staff pay 1.5% of their salaries toward their health insurance. The vast majority of the school board's employees pay nothing toward their insurance premiums and only token amounts for co-pays and deductibles. By law, all local government workers must begin paying 1.5% toward health insurance no later than when their current contract ends. Hoboken should have talked to the unions about requiring these payments immediately.

If you want a school board that knows you don't have to spend taxpayers into oblivion to guarantee an excellent education for the children of Hoboken, vote for Tucker, Lin, Markevitch and Forsman on April 20. Too much of the money we spend goes into pockets instead of into classrooms!