Council speaks loudly
Don't confuse the form of the Council's recommendations on the defeated school budget with their substance. The Council's suggestions to the Board of Education took the form of a resolution passed by a narrow 4-3 vote that identified $6.1 million worth of savings through a combination of headcount reductions (especially in the administration and support staff) and reduced spending on supplies like textbooks. The substance of the Council's message to the BoE was clear. Taxpayers must not be compelled to bear the brunt of the sharp decrease in state aid to local school districts.
While the final number approved by the Council majority was deemed too high by Deputy Mayor Parker and Council members Honis and Toffler, none of them pushed hard for recommending only modest cuts in expenditures for the coming school year. As Council members from across the spectrum repeatedly voiced their frustration at a process that forced them to make difficult and very specific choices with incomplete information and what they claimed was little to no assistance from the BoE leadership, it became clear during last night's marathon session that the Council intended to throw down the gauntlet before the BoE. Council members repeatedly reminded themselves and their audience that the line items they were trimming were only suggestions and that the BoE itself would be charged with the task of apportioning the overall sum authorized to the areas of greatest need, doing "more with less."
In a dramatic and somewhat surprising statement, Council member Toffler revealed what it appears the Council was really intending to convey to the BoE by weighing such significant cuts to the school budget. Professing a belief in "shared sacrifice" under difficult circumstances, Toffler suggested (no doubt with the wholehearted agreement of at least four of her Council colleagues) that the BoE ought to seek concessions from the teachers' union that would ease the pain of the state aid reduction, presumably to include a salary freeze and employee contributions toward health benefits.
Attention now turns to the BoE, where Dr. Ardie Walser et al have limited room for maneuver. The BoE is hemmed in on one side by an electorate that has voted against a signficant increase in the school tax levy, a Council that has reaffirmed that vote and recommended freezing spending at the previous year's levels, and a new administration in Trenton that is fiercely fighting to slow the growth in the homeowner tax burden. On the other side is a binding contract with teachers that locks in a significant pay hike. In the middle is a large school system with a host of complex needs and wants.
If it is truly committed to protecting the interest of students, and indeed of the many public employees who are not tenured faculty whose livelihoods hang in the balance, the BoE will now turn to the teachers' union and seek to come to an arrangement. It might also, as Council member Toffler hoped, seize the opportunity to increase sharing of services with the municipality, and perhaps even revisit an idea unreasonably discarded by the Council in its deliberations: user fees. However, neither of those areas has the same potential for vast savings and preservation of existing programs and services as the suspension of salary increases, an idea whose time has most certainly come.