Jersey City Together held their annual education funding meeting yesterday evening, urging school officials for firm commitments to improve facilities and funding, as well as announcing a bold proposal to raise the school tax levy.
Brigid D’Souza, a Jersey City Together member for three years, was the organization’s main speaker at Wesleyan Church to announce a proposal that a school tax levy be raised on homeowners in order to make up for a significant funding gap due to a cut in state aid.
During her speech, she utilized a Power Point presentation that displayed the numbers homeowners would be expected to pay dependent upon the value of their home.
“If everyone gives a little, it could all add up to a lot. Here’s a list of home values, and say we want to raise $12 million this year, what would that look like for a property tax owner? If you have a $400,000 home, you currently pay about $6,000 yearly in property tax,” began D’Souza.
“If we were to raise $12 million, we would be asking that property owner to increase their school tax $144 in a year, or $12 per month. Again, if everyone gives a little, it all adds up to a lot. This is not an easy conversation to have, it’s not, because property taxes are another expense. But we must pay for what we want, that’s the way taxes work.”
In an interview, we asked D’Souza what she most wanted to impress during the large gathering that had hundreds in attendance.
“I was trying to convey and break down what does it mean to raise the school tax levy. If we raise the rate, what does it mean on a per monthly basis for a homeowner, what’s the monthly impact for a single homeowner with the idea that with any kind of a tax hike, everyone pays a little and it all adds up to the full levy to fund our schools, and to fund things like special education services, nurses so that they don’t have to rotate between schools and eliminate cuts to guidance counselors,” D’Souza said.
She acknowledged during her talk that raising property taxes may not be particularly popular; she emphasized that ultimately residents are going to have to decide and determine their priorities when it comes to school funding.
“I think this requires a community-wide dialogue to understand what are our priorities around funding. It’s a priority for me, and I’m willing to advocate to increase school taxes. But maybe our neighbors may not agree because they have different priorities, and I think as a community we need to determine what do we value as a community and what do we want our property taxes to fund,” said D’Souza.
In what has become a signature for Jersey City Together events, group leaders have the opportunity to grill public officials in public with specific policy questions.
This time, Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas and Acting Superintendent of Schools Franklin Walker endured questions about their commitments to stave off a funding crisis, eliminating lead-based pollutants from the district’s facilities, ensuring that water fountains are properly functioning and funding special education services.
Thomas said that he would commit to take the lead on finding solutions to address many of the district’s outstanding funding and operational challenges.
“My resounding answers of yes to the organization’s questions, to me, are basic human rights questions. On the special education issue, at the February 26th BOE meeting, the board voted to approve a RFP for a comprehensive audit of our special education department,” he explained.
“That RFP is already out, and we are hoping to get responses soon, and we will publish the results. We actually reviewed the special education audit for Teaneck, which proved comprehensive.”
Thomas also said he’s in favor of the organization’s proposal to raise the school tax levy, but said that alone cannot be the solution.
“I want to assure you guys that our strategy to balance [our next] budget will not just be taxes and cost cutting, but through operational efficiencies, legal and legislative efforts.”
When Walker was asked about student investment by putting forward a budget that includes roughly $4 million in investments the organization has proposed, including $1 million to community schools, further investments in crisis and intervention teachers and restoring per pupil non-salaried funding to $500 per student, Walker said yes.
“It’s important that we understand the perspective of others. There’s no question about it, but the students of Jersey City deserve a world-class education,” the superintendent responded.
He also responded to a particular parent’s heart-wrenching claim that her special needs child is not receiving the appropriate services in the district.
“I heard from one of the parents here this evening, and certainly I’m very sorry. You certainly have my sincerest apologies. Based upon your perception on what’s happening in Jersey City Public Schools, and the fact that for whatever reason you didn’t receive the service, support or attention that you should have received under the circumstances,” he stated.
“But by you being here this evening and expressing your concerns, our job is to make sure that it doesn’t happen to you again, or to anyone else for that matter,” said Franklin.
We live streamed the entire event on our Facebook page and it can be viewed below: