Pulse: Money: Getting Schooled

Think Obama is tearing through tax dollars? He’s got nothing on school districts down the Shore

‘‘Taxation without representation is tyranny,” Boston politician James Otis famously stated during the Revolution. His target was those money-grubbing Brits. But his battle cry is now being heard in a far different locale: the Jersey Shore.

It started in Margate, a place not unfamiliar with wars among the beachy chic set, as anyone who witnessed last year’s smackdown between Casel’s supermarket and Steve & Cookie’s farmers’ market can attest. But in this case, the stakes are a bit higher than tomatoes. At issue is the ballooning budget for Margate’s schools, which, at $15,658 per pupil, is more than 18 percent above the state median — a stat exacerbated by the fact that Margate has bused in students to bolster dwindling enrollment rather than close one of its three schools. “One must ask if this is another costly city debacle of cunning, carelessness, or plain old inanity?” resident Doug Donato wrote in a blistering letter to the local Downbeach Current newspaper.

As most fights over taxes do, this one has become public and nasty. But it has also gotten part-time Shore residents, most of whom blithely pay their real estate taxes with nary a thought, taking a closer look at how those taxes are being spent and wondering, “What the %#!*?”

Take Avalon. It’s long been considered one of the Shore’s most desirable locales, but 85 percent of the people who own homes there don’t live — or presumably vote — there. In the past decade, Avalon’s school budget (the district educates 76 students total) has risen from $1.8 million to $3.2 million, a jump of 78 percent. Its municipal library, fit for a college campus, hosts classes in gourmet cooking, ballroom dancing, Spanish and Italian. Not to be outdone, Ocean City is spending millions on its own library expansion. And its ’09-’10 school budget is $38.6 million, up 44 percent since 2000.

Meanwhile, over in Sea Isle, per-pupil spending clocks in at a staggering $35,983 — the highest rate among regular Shore districts (with Avalon a close second at $32,384). To get some perspective, consider that Lower Merion, the Tiffany of Main Line school districts, spends $28,500 per pupil. Does all the money buy a better education? Some 29 percent of Sea Isle students tested advanced in math proficiency in 2007, well above the state average. But only 6.5 percent tested advanced in language arts — half the state average.

Critics say a lot of the spending could be eradicated if sparsely populated Shore schools would consolidate. It’s the same argument made regarding municipal budgets, where combining police and fire departments appears to make perfect sense, but always seems to (pardon the metaphor) sink beneath the waves of old-fashioned turf politics: Everyone’s for consolidation as long as his or her cousin isn’t the one laid off. Forget No Child Left Behind. It’s more like No Patronage Job Left Behind.

With second homeowners not garnering a whole lot of sympathy (who’s going to speak up for the rights of people who can afford beach houses?), there’s been no outlet for organizing the grumbling about the Shore’s big spenders. But that might change when the New Jersey Taxpayers’ Association, a nine-year-old grassroots group, finishes forming its new chapters in Atlantic and Cape May counties this year. “It’s just so egregious,” NJTA president Jerry Cantrell says of the runaway municipal spending, which he labels “a train wreck.” “We’re deferring pension fund payments, and next year the state is looking at a $6 billion deficit. [Public employees] can’t simply sit back and say, ‘Well, you promised me this and you promised me that.’ So did Bernie Madoff.”