Kai Ryssdal: Local school districts across the country are finalizing their budgets for next year. Budgets that are, in most places, funded with local property taxes. Which means you know what’s coming next.
Falling home prices, like the Case-Shiller report we got today, means school revenues are down. And residents are in no mood to approve tax increases to pay for schools. Those battles between homeowners, parents and school boards are in sharp relief in Cherry Hill, N.J., where the budget will be put to a vote tomorrow.
Marketplace’s Janet Babin explains there are enough characters, plot lines and over-acting to make Cherry Hill’s budget drama read like a bad high school play.
Janet Babin: Scene 1: Ponzio’s, a popular Cherry Hill diner. Cozy vinyl booths line the walls.
Waitress: Hello, how you doing today? Can I get you a drink?
Martin Sharofsky sits down for burger and a decaf.
Martin Sharofsky: The infamous diners of Cherry Hill.
Babin: What is it about New Jersey and diners?
Sharofsky: I don’t know.
He may not know about diners, but Sharofsky does know — very well — about another Cherry Hill institution: its stellar public schools. He’s president of the Cherry Hill Teachers Union. Those teachers can brag that 95 percent of the students they teach go on to college. Not bad in one the state’s largest and most diverse suburban districts. Teachers’ salaries here average $54,000 a year and can go up to $100,000.
Families — like Sharofsky’s — move to this suburb, right across the bridge from Philadelphia, for the education.
Sharofsky: I left the Philadelphia schools after my daughter got stabbed there. Yeah, she wouldn’t turn over her homework to somebody, so that person took a pencil and jabbed it right through her hand onto the desk. A couple stitches later, and the sale sign went up on our house.
To support their schools, Cherry Hill residents pay some of the highest property taxes in the nation. According to the Tax Foundation, the town is among the top 10 communities with the highest tax burden relative to home value — in 2009, about $5,600 a year for the median homeowner.
But a revolt’s been brewing. Last year, Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, urged voters to turn down any local budget that hiked property taxes but didn’t freeze teacher wages. Here’s Christie addressing the state legislature.
Chris Christie: Is it fair to have any public employees getting 4 to 5 percent salary increases every year, even when inflation is at 0 percent, paid for by our citizens who are struggling to survive?
Christie’s message got through. Residents voted down more than half of all school budgets. Cherry Hill’s took a $2.5 million cut. Then Christie gave millions of Cherry Hill’s surplus money to ailing schools.
Jim Deveareau: You’re literally stunned. It was just something that never happened before, nothing you could really fathom or comprehend.
That’s Cherry Hill school budget director Jim Deveareau. He says the district had to cut more than 100 positions, and reduce teacher raises.
This year, the district came in with a lower tax bill. But because Cherry Hill home values have gone down so much, residents will actually pay a higher tax rate than they did last year; it’ll work out to about $100 more for the average family.
Scene 2: Cherry Hill High School West.
School intercom: Good afternoon.
Enter dedicated English and drama teacher Carolyn Messias, guiding 7th period through Shakespeare rehearsals.
Carolyn Messias: We’re going to go into Brandon’s “Othello” wrap. Who’s doing “Shrew”?
Messias teaches in the district, but also lives here. She worries about her taxes going up. Two years ago, her husband lost his job at Circuit City.
Messias: And that put us in a very serious position, because I couldn’t support the two of us. But I love my job.
Because of budget cuts, Messias’s thespians, and other students, have to hand over $80 in activity fees for afterschool programs.
Another side effect of a lean budget: bigger class size. Those are the kind of changes that makes heavily taxed parents furious.
Scene 3: Cherry Hill School Board meeting. A few dozen attend; mostly teachers and parents, like Larry Wong. His two kids are in middle school.
Larry Wong: It seems to me that the children’s education has kind of been put on the back burner. You know, middle school has now classes that have 35 to 36 kids in a class.
The school board also hears from taxpayers without kids in school, like Robert Shinn. He’s part of a tax reform group in Cherry Hill.
Robert Shinn: We have declining property values, vastly reduced state aid, and we just can’t afford to have property taxes maintained at these levels, let alone go up more.
Roll Call: Ms. Judge? Yes.
After a few hours of mind-numbing district business, the school board unanimously passes a preliminary budget: 2 percent higher than last year’s.
But the end of this play is still being workshopped. Residents write the final act tomorrow, when they vote on the school budget.
In Cherry Hill, N.J., I’m Janet Babin for Marketplace.
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