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Pascack Valley Daily Voice serves Emerson, Hillsdale, Montvale, Park Ridge, River Vale, Washington Township, Westwood & Woodcliff Lake

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School chiefs’ loss could be North Jersey taxpayers’ gain

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

EDITORIAL : Home rule in New Jersey is being put to the test this fall: School administrators are in the crosshairs of budget cuts if the Pascack Valley Regional High School District is dissolved or restructured because of funding inequities among the four towns that send their students there, officials acknowledged last night.

Under the options for dealing with funding differences, fewer administrators would be needed, officials said at last night’s meeting in Woodcliff Lake. And while most teachers are protected by contracts, the administrators aren’t.

This just may be where we find out how serious we are about finding ways to keep taxes from eating more of our shrinking incomes.

A ballot question in Nov. 3’s election will ask Woodcliff Lake voters whether they and Montvale taxpayers should essentially continue to subsidize the costs for students from River Vale and Hillsdale or go a different route together.

A 2007 study of the options found the two richer boroughs would be better off if the district were dissolved or if they broke away. They could then form a single pre-K through 12th grade district or each maintain their own, while creating a regional high school district using one of the two high school buildings at Pascack Hills in Montvale.

The two towns would save about $3.5 to $4.5 million — $2 million of that for administrative costs — while River Vale and Hillsdale would be hit with a combined tax increase of $2.5 to $3.5 million per year, the feasibility study concludes.

Jerry DeMarco

Each town has its own grade-school district, with a school board, a full-time superintendent, a business administrator, special services coordinator, etc. Then they merge all their high school students into a fifth district, the two-building Pascack Valley Regional High School District, also with its own school board, superintendent, business administrator.

So things can begin to get sticky when options for funding equitability are discussed.

“Everyone is talking about how much money we’ll save on ‘administrative costs’, but no one has spelled out exactly what that means,” said Lisa Volpe Yakomin of Woodcliff Lake, a trustee and past president of the Woodcliff Lake Educational Foundation.

Superintendent Pete Lisi, for instance, “is actively involved in every aspect of running our schools system,” she said at last week’s meeting. “He oversees the hiring of new teachers, staff evaluations, assesses budget needs, and is instrumental in deciding on curriculum improvements for our schools. He’s there, on-site, every day.

“If we were to lose him and outsource that role to someone off-site, in a completely different building in another town, there’s no question that it would negatively impact the overall quality of education that we currently have in Woodcliff Lake.”

Woodcliff Lake is paying the most per student to the regional district, $26,686, but uses the system the least (366 students); Hillsdale sends the most (591) but pays the least ($16,993) per student; the trend continues for Montvale (417 students at $21,986), with 551 students from River Vale paying $16,993, compared with $14,404 for Hillsdale.

No matter which route the districts take, the state-mandated formula will still have some paying more than others, said Debbie Starr Rubenstein, a member of Woodcliff Lake’s school board. Combining with Montvale also would leave Woodcliff Lake with a minority under a new Board of Education (9-1 under one scenario. 4-3 under another).

To get the equitability they seek, the two richer towns would have to formally ask the state to revise the funding system or allow the district to be dissolved, with new districts created.

But that’s going to cost quite a bit in legal fees to pursue, first with parents of the affected districts and then with state officials. One projection put the minimum cost for  legal fees at $175,000.

Then you essentially would be asking the two poorer towns to approve significant tax hikes.

In the end, though, you have the single question that  could leave the entire exercise a colossal waste of time: Could you reasonably expect school and municipal officials in any of the four towns to back any of the suggested moves if it means cutting the jobs of the people who make the key decisions — and the most money?

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