Two members of the School Board have criticized board president Hemant Marathe’s decision not to hold a special meeting to discuss using new state aid money for tax relief this year.
Members Ellen Walsh and Todd Hochman were critical of the president during the school board’s July 26 meeting for denying the full board a chance to discuss the opportunity.
Last month state officials announced that the WW-P district would receive $1.5 million more in state aid for the 2011-’12 school year. The new aid, announced by Governor Chris Christie on July 12, is part of the governor’s education allocation plan, which called for an initial increase of $250 million for all school districts, as well as an additional $450 million for Abbott districts and $150 million for non-Abbot districts.
The district originally had $10.7 million in state aid in the 2009-’10 school year — less than half of the state aid called for under the state’s own funding formula. Then in the 2010-’11 year, the district’s state aid was slashed by 71 percent, decreasing to $3.1 million.
Walsh said she felt that given the economy, the money should have been applied for tax relief this year. “The board president decided not to have a meeting” on the matter, she said. “I think that should have been a decision made by the whole board.”
The state provided guidelines for school districts’ use of the extra money. One option was to apply the money toward the 2011-’12 school year; the others allowed districts to either spend the money or use it as tax relief in the 2012-’13 or 2013-’14 school years.
The option for this year, however, required the district to call a special meeting for discussion and a vote. To do that, officials would have had to publicly advertise the meeting 48 hours in advance. All of this had to be done by July 19, though the announcement was made just a week before, on July 12.
Marathe and Larry Shanok, the assistant superintendent of finance, said they thought it was too short of a deadline to act.
“Twenty districts managed to act, and I’m trying to understand why we did not,” said Walsh.
Hochman also said he found out the decision was made by Marathe in the morning on July 14. He said he recognized that Marathe had the authority to decide whether to call a meeting about a particular subject or not. But not calling a meeting in this case effectively made a decision for the board to not apply the funding for the current school year.
That he made the final decision was “technically correct,” but “I didn’t make that decision on my own,” responded Marathe. He said that if the board were going to hold a meeting, he would have had only four to five hours to do so after finding out the guidelines and timelines for the various options for the state aid.
He said he called fellow board member Anthony Fleres, who serves on the board’s finance committee, who agreed with him that “it was not a good decision to apply it for the 2011-’12 school year.”
Marathe said he also called Board Vice President Robert Johnson, who also agreed. He said, though, that it was “good to know” that school board members are willing to meet on such short notice in the future.
Marathe also said that while there are various options for the money, including tax relief or spending it next year, “no one has indicated they want to spend it, so it’s going to go back to tax relief anyway.”
Johnson defended Marathe during the meeting, saying that the board made the decision to elect Marathe as its president, which gives him the responsibility to make these calls. The fact that the board was only given one week to make a decision on using the money for immediate tax relief was too short of a time to really vet the issue anyway, he said.
“That’s an imprudent way to make a decision,” he said, adding that he would have argued that point even if the board had held an emergency meeting, “the board, as a whole, would not have reached a different conclusion.”
Johnson also noted that the board should be cautious because the state is unpredictable and can take money away at any time.
Unless the state takes money away unexpectedly, the board’s intention is to use the money for future tax relief, said Johnson. But if the state takes more money away next year, the district may choose to use the money to offset some of what may otherwise need to be cut to accommodate, he said.
— Cara Latham