New Jersey school boards could save more than $7 million a year without mandatory membership in a statewide lobbying association, a lawmaker said yesterday. “This is something that is a holdover from a different time,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester). “I don’t know exactly what you get for that money.” A 40-year-old law requires every school board to pay dues to the New Jersey School Boards Association. It has an annual budget of about $10 million; about $7.4 million of that comes from fees charged to New Jersey’s 588 school boards.
The group lobbies on proposed laws in Trenton, trains trustees on ethics and other issues and runs yearly conferences. Burzichelli said he will sponsor legislation to make membership optional.
Districts pay an average $12,688 a year in dues, according to figures supplied by the association. Burzichelli said his hometown of Paulsboro, with 6,000 residents and about 1,500 schoolchildren, pays more than $8,000 annually.
Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the association, said the group provides “significant value” to members. Its oversight of a cooperative energy-buying program, he said, will save 400 districts $36 million in two years. Its staff has lobbied for more state funding of special education and construction projects, and has helped districts to retain subcontracted workers despite union opposition, he said.
“The bill would make it far more difficult for the New Jersey School Boards Association to provide school districts with assistance ranging from policy to legal services; to offer state-mandated training to school board members, and to help them negotiate against one of the most powerful, well-financed labor unions in the state,” Yaple said.
Yaple was referring to the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union. Its staff was not available to respond because the offices are closed for the holidays.
Beyond the school board association’s operating costs, taxpayers bear an additional, multimillion-dollar expense.
The Record last month reported that employees of the association and two other private Trenton lobbying groups — the League of Municipalities and the New Jersey Association of Counties — are enrolled in the taxpayer-funded state pension system. Legislation from the 1950s enabled the groups to join even though their staffs are not government employees, because lawmakers determined they were acting in the public interest.
On Tuesday, Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester) said he will sponsor legislation to exclude the groups’ future hires from collecting government pensions.
New Jersey was in good financial shape at the time the lobbyists were permitted to join the system. Today, however, the state is looking at an annual budget deficit of at least $8 billion, and its pension system is $30 billion short of analysts’ target. At the same time, New Jerseyans pay the country’s highest property taxes — and more than 50 cents of each dollar goes to operate schools.
Taxpayers are giving $1.3 million a year to 62 retirees of the three groups, The Record found. That’s in addition to the $8.2 million a year in local and county taxes handed over for the groups’ membership dues.
The school boards association’s 73 employees have annual pensionable salaries of $4.6 million, according to data from the state Treasury Department. Its 47 retirees collect $90,912 in retirement payments each month, or $1.1 million a year.
“The association should, like any other business, have to entice customers to voluntarily join by offering excellent services and representation,” Burzichelli said. “If boards want to join, that’s fine. But requiring boards to join and to spend taxpayer money to do so lacks common sense.” Star Ledger.