Burlington County Times, May 6, 2002

I was disappointed, but not surprised, when voters in twelve Burlington County communities voted down their school budgets. My only surprise was that 27 out of 39 school budgets in Burlington County were approved. The nay sayers were voters in Bordentown, Delanco, Evesham, Mansfield, Medford, Northern Burlington, Pemberton Borough, Shamong, Southampton, Springfield, and Willingboro, plus the Lenape Regional High School District. Six of the eight towns in the Lenape Regional High School District voted against the budget; two of those, Medford Lakes and Tabernacle, weren’t against school budgets per se, as they did approve their local budgets. Lenape, along with the other 11 districts, is now facing an increase in students, a decrease in state aid, and an unapproved budget.

I wasn’t surprised because no one likes to see an increase in tax rates. And the suburbs are no longer the homogeneous two-parents-plus-school-aged-children neighborhoods of an earlier time. Instead, in addition to the 1/4 acre single-family tract houses, there are condos and townhouses occupied by pre-nesters and empty nesters, two groups who do not make use of the school system and have little or no vested interest in its successes.

I’m disappointed, because such a point of view is short-sighted. We all have a vested interest in the public school system, whether or not we have children in the schools. I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that the future of our country depends on how well we educate our children. If the welfare and well-being of our country are the responsibility of each of us, then it is incumbent on each of us to pay a fair share of the cost of schools. Yes, it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to pay for that child’s education.

The idea of public funding for public schools for the benefit of all goes back to the founding of the United States. Thomas Jefferson was a strong proponent of publicly-funded education on all levels, from primary through university, and for all citizens, not just children. He believed that democracy could be preserved only if the citizenry were educated. “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.”

I think what disturbs me the most is that we’re not talking here about poorly performing schools. Actually, most schools with low-levels of achievement would benefit from an influx of more funding, but I can understand the tax payers’ reluctance to “throw good money after bad.” I can’t understand, though, why they don’t want to ensure that high levels of performance will continue.

I know from personal experience just what a good job the Evesham Township schools do. Education today is complex and the kinds of skills children need to master are varied. I cannot think of anything in my sons’ curriculum that is a frill or an extra. Our society has evolved far beyond the “3 R’s.” We’ve raised the bar – no longer can someone expect to find a job with a 10th grade education, or even a high school diploma. Many low-level entry positions now require at least a two-year associates degree.

There’s no fat to trim from these budgets; many of them already were bare bones when presented to the voters. For example, the Lenape Regional High School District’s proposed budget had already been reduced by $6 million, the deductions resulting from a decision not to hire new teachers in order to reduce class size. To save only one cent on the tax rate, $800,000 more will have to be cut out of the budget.

In Evesham, the defeated budget would have cost the average taxpayers an increase of approximately $53.00 a year, or slightly more than $1.00 a week. The revised budget will bring that average increase down to $46.00 a year. In order to save the homeowner $7.00 a year, the Township had to trim the budget by $300,000, delaying the purchase of a new school bus and the hiring of two new teachers for the elementary schools. The rest of the savings come from the surplus, a reduction in liability insurance payments, and an increase in Federal subsidies for special education.

Jefferson, too, understood the opposition there would be to school taxes, and countered his critics: “The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” In other words, we may be saving ourselves the cost of one cup of coffee a week, but it’s a false savings. The price is much too high.


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