PJ BLOGGER

Rules target school dollars

In Uncategorized on July 7, 2008 at 10:46 am

By GREGORY J. VOLPE
Gannett State Bureau

TRENTON — School districts shall not award administrators bonuses without measurable objectives. Or use glossy colored mailers when cheaper printing options are available. They can give superintendents use of a taxpayer-funded car — but not a luxury model.

Those are examples of how New Jersey thinks its 615 school districts need to operate most efficiently for taxpayers. Proposed months ago, they’re no longer suggestions; now they’re mandatory rules for school districts.

Some in education think the state has gone beyond helpful suggestions and is imposing its will over local districts’ rights to govern themselves.

“We’ve also objected to what we saw as a punitive tone,” said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, referring to several clauses that say state aid may be withheld from a district that doesn’t follow the regulations and wastes money.

“It’s not meant to be a threat. It’s meant to be ‘We’re going to do that,'” Education Commissioner Lucille Davy said. “It’s intended to spell out clearly what we believe is and isn’t efficient.”

Lawmakers, who ordered the Department of Education to draft these regulations as part of several funding and accountability measures passed in recent years, say taxpayers demand accountability, especially in education — the largest portion of the state’s budget and only major segment not touched by Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s budget ax this year.

“It absolutely is Trenton imposing the will of the people that school districts have to have some cost containment,” said Assembly Education Committee Chairman Joseph Cryan, D-Union. “Not only do we talk in regulations, we talk in dollars by putting in this $600 million extra in school aid.”

The regulations range from broad, such as reviews the newly created executive county superintendents must do over districts’ budgets and other expenditures, to the narrow, such as limiting the number of janitors a school can hire to one per 17,500 square feet of building space.

The New Jersey Education Association is concerned some of the restrictions on travel, including meal expenses, may hinder teachers’ ability to learn at multi-day conventions or seminars. “It’s going to have a chilling effect on people to pursue their ability of professional development,” NJEA spokesman Steve Baker said.

He also said some regulations may override provisions that were negotiated at the bargaining table.

Some were struck by the level of minutiae to which state officials have delved.

“There does appear to be elements of micromanaging,” Belluscio said. “There’s a need for fiscal accountability, and guidance is appreciated, but there’s an unusual degree of specificity.”

That speaks to dissatisfaction taxpayers have with the way their districts operate, Senate Education Committee chairwoman Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, said.

“They desperately want accountability, and they are not satisfied that their voices are being heard at the local level, and they’re not satisfied with the accountability on the local level,” Turner said. “Particularly as it relates to so many of these extravagant expenses that we’ve read about in the newspapers.”

The regulations don’t assume that a well-backed proposal to move school board elections from April to November to boost voter participation will become law. One sticking point for some in that measure — which was approved by the Assembly but not taken up in the Senate — is that it would take away the public’s vote on school tax levies in districts that stay within taxing and spending caps.

Proponents say little is cut from defeated budgets. Back in April, voters rejected levies in 143 districts that proposed raising a collective $2.91 billion from local property taxpayers. Ultimately, those levies were trimmed by $33 million, or 1.1 percent. One district trimmed $50. Twenty-seven others, including Vineland, cut nothing.

Turner, the Senate sponsor of the proposal to move school elections, said she intends to push the legislation this fall.

“That would be incentive to keep them within the cap. … If we had everything in November, that’s eliminating an election which costs taxpayer dollars,” Turner said.

More regulations are expected from the Department of Education once Corzine signs a bill expanding the education commissioner’s ability to enact rules on an emergency basis. These will expand upon what was approved last week, as well as touch on transportation, special education and consolidation.

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  1. If boards of ed acted responsibly with the public’s money there wouldn’t be the need for more and more mandates and regulations. These boards are their own worse enemy. What happens when you don’t listen to the people?

    The people get the legislators to crap all over your sh**.

    Take a lesson BOE. You’re never the final say on education.

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