Jack Ciattarelli’s plan to solve the New Jersey property tax problem comes down to this: divert money from poor cities like Newark and Paterson and send it to the suburbs instead.
It can’t work, because it would never fly in the legislature, controlled by Democrats, or the state Supreme Court, which has overturned all attempts to prejudice the city’s schools for several consecutive decades. Ciattarelli has no intention of getting over all of this, so in a way this ugly centerpiece of his campaign is harmless.
But it is revealing. It would threaten the hard-won progress in urban New Jersey schools, deepening the state’s already huge divisions between rich and poor, black and white. If in doubt, talk to a frontline educator about the impact of budget cuts.
“The first thing we would lose is staff, because that’s three-quarters of the budget,” says Paterson Superintendent Eileen Shafer. “There’s no getting around it. And when you cut a teacher, what happens? The size of your class will increase. It is the children who would lose. If you have 10 speech-language pathologists, it would be eight. Same thing with guidance counselors. And all this staff is important, more than ever, because our children have not been to school for 18 months.
Paterson schools are already in trouble. Shafer said 1,000 classrooms in the city were overcrowded, exceeding state guidelines for class size. Some schools have completely eliminated art and music. And with over 40 different nationalities, the neighborhood has to spend colossal sums to overcome language barriers for around 5,000 students. A recent wave of Syrian refugees included teenagers who had never been to school.
“We need more bilingual teachers,” Shafer says.
Ciattarelli offers robotic escapes when you ask him. He says he doesn’t want to increase total state aid to schools but would divide the pie differently. He wants “fairer and flatter” funding and says he “would restore state aid to countries in difficulty suburban, shore and rural schools.“
Note that it only leaves urban districts on this list. So the calculations tell us that poor cities would take a hit, equal to increases elsewhere. But Ciattarelli dances when asked directly.
“I will not leave any student behind me,” he said.
I tried again, “If we protect each district by providing them with what they need, I don’t think we will hurt anyone.
He makes a sore point, which owners of Jersey City and Hoboken are paying much lower property taxes than suburban homeowners like Toms River. But Jersey City and Hoboken are anomalies, they have experienced explosive growth in their wealth. And adjustments for that are underway – a 2018 law provides for cuts in both cities over a seven-year period.
And one of the main reasons why property taxes are lower in Jersey City is that the same reform allowed the city to impose a 1% payroll tax to help fund schools. Toms River has no payroll tax.
Dave Sciarra is the head of Education Law Center and won a series of trials for the defense of urban neighborhoods before the State Supreme Court. He thinks Ciattarelli is just not informed.
“He doesn’t realize what has happened (in Jersey City) over the past two or three years is that the district and town have dramatically increased their property tax contribution and added a payroll tax, ”he said. “They lose state aid every year.
In other words, Ciattarelli is late for this game. Jersey City and Hoboken have already been downgraded, with more to come.
As for Toms River, it is also losing aid under this 2018 law, putting upward pressure on property taxes. The reason is that the district had lost nearly 2,000 students over a 10-year period when the state failed to adjust aid to keep up with changing student populations. Toms River was receiving more than its fair share and is now going through a painful period of adjustment.
“When we passed this, 70 percent of the districts were overfunded and 30 percent underfunded,” said Senate Speaker Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “We wanted to be fair about it. “
If Ciattarelli argued that towns like Toms River need more money, fine. He could find a way to increase spending on education or transfer money from richer cities that might suffer the blow. But he’s rather playing a political game, targeting Democratic towns and stoking resentment in the suburbs.
At a time when the pandemic has highlighted racial inequalities across the country, Ciattarelli is proposing a plan that would worsen that division here in New Jersey, in a school system that is today one of the most segregated in America.
Ciattarelli appeared on Brian Lehrer’s show on WNYC radio this week and a caller asked him how he would define “white privilege”.
“I don’t really understand the question,” Ciattarelli said, asking for an explanation.
Lehrer intervened: “Would you agree that not understanding the meaning of white privilege and needing someone to explain it to you reveals a kind of blind spot on racial inequality?”
Ciattarelli wouldn’t answer that one either. It was another eye-opening moment.
Following: Tom Moran’s Columns