North Brunswick school tax increase due to charter school funding, payment for new school

NORTH BRUNSWICK – The funding of charter schools continues to impact North Brunswick taxpayers in terms of the annual school budget.

Superintendent of Schools Brian Zychowski said a mandate from the state which requires the North Brunswick Public School District to pay for students from the township who attend area charter schools is a “duplication of resources” and is costing the district an additional $1.6 million.

He said without that expense, the average taxpayer in North Brunswick would see a $6 per month decrease in their school tax.

“Why should we be funding, with taxpayer money, another public school in a different county?” Zychowski said during a Board of Education meeting on April 29.

Zychowski said 83% of the North Brunswick school district’s budget comes from local taxpayers, so he believes the same percentage of funding should be provided by the state to charter schools. He said charter schools are essentially in competition with public schools for funding.

He stressed there is no bias against charter schools, but simply the way they are funded.

“Charter schools are not the enemy. They are our children. It’s legal, but it’s the funding that’s the battle,” Zychowski said. “Nothing against charter schools – they are our students. We are worried about the funding. … The state should be responsible for an independent school.”

Zychowski said other costs included in the school district’s $114 million general operating budget for 2020-21 include items such as increased special education costs, safety and security, bilingual programs, technology, professional development, maintenance, paying 1,100 employees and transportation.

Zychowski said the tax levy is up $225,000 from 2019-20, but instead of reaching the allowable tax levy cap and raising taxes by $3 million, the Board of Education is giving back $1.4 million of the district’s state aid to taxpayers as promised during a referendum for the construction of the new 7th-8th grade school. The district received $6.5 million in additional state aid this year for a total of about $30 million.

Per the 2016 referendum, the worst case scenario could have been charges of $19 per month since district administrators were considering a 30-year bond at 4.25% interest.

Instead, the district is in year three of a 25-year bond at 2.6% interest; administrators used state aid to pay off the first three years of the loan so taxpayers did not incur any charges.

Therefore, the costs in the 2020-21 budget associated with the new school are $7.38 per month, compared to the $19 per month anticipated increase. Combined with an 80-cent increase from the operating budget, the total increase is $8.18 per month or $98.17 per year on a home assessed at the township average of $158,520.

Without the new school tax, the increase would have been 80 cents per month or $9.60 per year for the owner of an average assessed home.

Zychowski said there has only been one referendum in the 14 years he has been employed by North Brunswick, and that was to build the new school. He said new roofs, science labs, playing fields and solar energy have all been funded by the budget, grants and partnerships.

He said 93% of the school budget is non-discretionary, meaning those costs are mandatory and non-negotiable.

“We’re in a good position due to prudent planning,” Zychowski said. “[But] it’s time we should ask Washington to help us out, help local municipalities.”

Zychowski said the budget had to be adopted by May 7. However, several variables exist such as state aid, the coronavirus pandemic, retirements, grant funding, enrollment and charter school enrollment.

The only dissenting vote on the vote to adopt the budget came from board member Howard Liu, who said in an interview, “When I ran for this seat, I said I would vote ‘no’ on any budget that increases property taxes. So this is the third and final year of my term and all three years I have voted ‘no’ on the school budget because all three years that is what the school budget did. I don’t believe the taxpayers of North Brunswick can afford tax increases year after year.”

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@newspapermediagroup.com.