Murphy Talks Budget and Lakewood Gets Cash.

This morning the Lakewood Board of Education held a meeting in the high school auditorium for representatives from 127 private ultra-Orthodox Jewish day schools to learn about an unexpected boon: A little-noticed bill signed by Governor Murphy last year allots $5 million to pay public school STEM teachers (STEM=Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) to earn extra money — more than they’d get per hour for extra duties in their traditional or charter schools —to teach in private schools. 

And when you’re talking about NJ private schools, you’re talking about Lakewood, the district that is spending $102,833,216 this year on security, textbooks, nursing services, technology, transportation, and tuition for ultra-Orthodox private schools, or yeshivas. (See Lakewood’s budget here. I added up the non-public line items, in addition to transportation and tuition. Back-of-the-napkin estimate, but pretty close.)

Where will the bulk of that $5 million go? Lakewood, of course! In fact, of the 16 Ocean County teachers who have already applied for the program (application here, deadline April 15th) 15 are from Lakewood.

After all, this is the district that is so insolvent from extravagant non-public costs that it has “borrowed” $100 million from the State that it will never pay back yet compensates its board attorney Michael Inzelbuch $715,000 per year, more than any other school board lawyer, well, anywhere. 

And, in case you’re wondering, state taxpayers — non-Lakewood residents — fork over more than $70 million a year to keep Inzelbuch in suspenders and Lakewood students, both public and non-public, in school. 

Speaking of taxpayer wallets, Governor Murphy gave his budget address today. For those of you as edu-centric as me, the key points were a $300 million increase in K-12 state aid for a total of $9 million (this includes a $50 million pot for more hold-harmless aid);  a proposal for free college for students with household income below $65,000 per year (this covers two and four-year colleges, although students can only get grants for two years); and $4.6 billion to the pension fund, the worst-funded pension system in the country. 

Murphy, echoing NJEA talking points, said, “our public schools rank as the very best in the nation in large part because of our commitment to investing in classrooms in every community. School funding is an investment in our future.”

He continued,

“But, just as important, school funding is property tax relief. Let’s be absolutely clear – every new dollar in school funding is a new dollar of property tax relief. Every new dollar we provide is a dollar that doesn’t have to come out of the pockets of property taxpayers.”

This is where I get lost. It’s all the same money, right? The Governor allots more money in state aid but that money still comes from taxpayers, whether it is driven by local property taxes or state taxes. The only “tax relief” would be if us dwindling New Jerseyans paid less in total but we’re not. We’re just reallocating our money into different pots. 

(Just to be clear, North Jersey’s Dustin Racioppi corrects Murphy’s boast that “no other administration has done so much in its first two years to control property taxes.” In fact, says Racioppi,  “the late Brendan Byrne enacted the income tax in his second term, which must by law go solely to property tax relief. Jim McGreevey sent taxpayers rebates. Chris Christie signed a 2% cap on annual property tax increases.” So, no, Murphy is not a trend-setter in property tax-relief.) 

Meanwhile, Lakewood teachers have another source of funds — which they’ve earned — and I take it as good news that yeshivas are interested in providing more STEM instruction. But here’s the thing: Lakewood/New Jersey taxpayers fund those yeshivas. Inzelbuch himself told the Asbury Park Press that he “applauds the program” because the funding is not “coming directly out of the Lakewood district’s coffers.”

But it’s still coming out of our pockets. I’d call that a distinction without a difference.

What do you think?

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