Zwicker’s bill allows towns to go over 2% tax cap for school funding. We push back. It’s a good debate

After sponsoring a bill that would allow some school districts to increase property taxes by more than the 2% they are currently allowed — to help with school funding issues — many feel state Sen. Andrew Zwicker has fallen into one of two categories:

  • He’s an ardent champion for education;
  • He’s a typical tax-and-spend politician.

Since Zwicker (D-Hillsborough) generally is regarded as one of the smartest people in the Legislature — someone always willing to have an open and honest debate on any issue — we offer a third:

  • He’s someone trying to find a solution to a problem that has vexed the state for years.

We reached out to Zwicker on his bill — had him explain it — and then offered a few counter-arguments to his explanation.

As the governor prepares to make his budget address Tuesday, we think it’s an inside look on the thought process of just one issue that impacts taxes and taxpayers.

The bill, by the way, has advanced out of committee.

A look at our conversation/debate with Zwicker:

ROI-NJ: Explain the issue with the school funding formula, S2, the bind it has put many districts in since it came into being in 2018 — and how your bill is going to fix it?

Andrew Zwicker: There’s nearly 600 school districts, and under what is commonly known as S2, districts have an obligation to pay their ‘fair share’ and then the state fills the gap. But, what has happened under S2, is that about a third of the districts got their funding cut. And, when that was combined with the 2% cap that Gov. (Chris) Christie put in on property taxes, a small number of districts have been put in a bind: They can’t pay their full share without going over the 2% — and, thus, they face major cuts every year.

Last year, we did a $103 million appropriation through the budget process, which only served to reduce potential cuts by two-thirds, not completely.

This bill is a temporary stopgap measure to stop major cuts. It only allows a small number of districts to go over the cap.

The funding formula is clearly not working for many school districts and needs a major update. Special education costs have gone up, transportation costs have gone up and we’re on the other side of a global pandemic. So, it needs to be addressed. This is a temporary solution.

ROI: Here’s the first pushback. If you are saying that, even with the 2% increase, you still can’t do what’s necessary for the schools, then you need to cut something else as opposed to asking me to pay more. Why is it always an increase in taxes as opposed to a cut in spending?

AZ: The pushback to your pushback would be that the S2 funding law done in 2018 was a gradual cutting of districts that were deemed to not be meeting their fair share. Some would debate whether that actually is happening.

Over the last several years, some school districts have cut everything else without cutting education. The argument is: Those cuts have already been made. So, that’s why we need a short-term opportunity for districts to raise the revenue they need, so that they don’t cut education.

ROI: Here’s the second pushback. You say temporary. That’s what everyone said about the Corporate Business Tax surcharge — which was extended, and some still are talking about making it permanent. The minute we let towns fix the problem by going over the 2% cap, why would they ever go back down?

AZ: I get it. There’s always going to be pushback. Can you cynically say it will be permanent? Sure. But we’re talking hypotheticals.

The reality is, we are in a position where this existing school funding formula isn’t working for a significant number of districts. We’ve got to fix it. We’ve got to get it right. We have a temporary measure here to help districts until we do.

ROI: Here’s the third pushback: We’ve known the school funding formula has been broken for years. It’s always a campaign issue. Why should someone think the Legislature will actually fix it now — especially when there’s a ‘temporary’ fix that could just become permanent?

AZ: Because we have to. I look at it this way. I live in South Brunswick Township. My kids went to school here and got an amazing education. They’re out of college and successful because South Brunswick public schools gave them the foundation to be successful.

South Brunswick is a perfect example of: If we don’t do something, then they are going to make massive cuts. It could be a significant number of staff members and a significant number of programs.

They have done everything, meaning they’ve paid their fair share, they’ve done busing properly, they’ve done special education properly, etc., etc., etc. If we don’t provide them with some form of relief, then there’s going to be a massive change in education in South Brunswick.

ROI: Can’t we just take the money from the state budget, which has ballooned in recent years?

AZ: There are two possibilities here. We could do what we did last year: Drop my bill and give South Brunswick and other districts money right out of the state budget — which is coming from you, me and everyone else who pays taxes. That doesn’t seem fair. Or, we could do what I’m proposing through the legislation. But, if we don’t do something, then South Brunswick and all these other districts that are in the same situation are going to be forced to make these massive cuts to education, services and programs and teachers and staff and everything else.

ROI: We’ll give you the final word.

AZ: We’ve kicked the can down the road for a long time now. We are now in a position where we need to do something for the education of the students in New Jersey in these districts. That’s what’s in front of us now. And, if we don’t fix the funding formula, this problem is not going away. What do we get then? The same conversation we’re having now.