In this experiment, taxpayers get burned

By Paul Mulshine, Star-Ledger columnist
 
I woke up the other morning and the coffee maker wasn't working right. It was the timer or something. I yelled to my wife.

"Hon! We're going to have to move. The coffee maker stopped working. We need a new house."

"Are you nuts?" she replied.

"No, it makes perfect sense. A new coffeemaker would cost $39.95. But for just $300,000 or so we can get a new house."

Sounds nutty, right? Yet this sort of reasoning makes sense in Trenton.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a meeting of the Hoboken Board of Education. Afterward I asked board president Carmelo Garcia why the district needed to replace Hoboken High School, a seemingly modern building with elaborate facilities.

"You've got the burners that no longer work," Garcia replied. "You've got the antiquated boilers."

I assumed that the "burners" to which Garcia alluded were oil burners, massive furnaces that might cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace. Silly me. A reader from Hoboken e-mailed me to set me straight: Garcia wasn't talking about oil burners; he was talking about Bunsen burners. They're those little heaters that students use in chemistry labs to heat up substances for experiments.

My curiosity aroused, I did an Internet search to see what it would cost to replace those burners. I quickly found a Web site offering the "top of the line" Bunsen burner for a mere $19.95. But why didn't the district simply maintain the old burners? Local education gadfly Theresa Minutillo points out that Hoboken pays $700,000 a year in overtime to those lucky ward heelers who have the custodial jobs in the schools. A bit of burner maintenance might save the school and save us the $100 million that Trenton plans to spend to replace it.

I hadn't seen a Bunsen burner since high school, so I figured more research was in order. Coincidentally enough, that evening I had to go to a meeting of some concerned alumni at my old school, Monsignor Donovan in Toms River. Also coincidentally, that high school opened at the same time as Hoboken High School, in the fall of 1962.

"MonDon," as it's known, was then and is now located in a functional but hardly elaborate building. But back in 1962, those lucky kids in Hoboken got to attend classes in what was described as an "ultra-modern high school building" in a brochure from the school dedication sent me by a Hoboken alumnus. The brochure showed a building that would have been beyond the wildest dreams of us MonDon students. Our school had -- and still has -- a tiny bandbox of a gym that could fit in a corner of the huge Hoboken gym. Hoboken High has a huge auditorium and a pool; MonDon has neither. Hoboken has 48 classrooms and labs. MonDon has just 34, though it serves about 100 more students.

But let's get to the heart of the matter: the Bunsen burners. After the alumni meeting, I got Tony Chiarello, the development director for the parish, to show me to one of the chemistry labs where 40 years ago I had encountered a Bunsen burner for the first -- and last -- time in my life. I walked over and checked one out. It seemed to be in fine shape.

"Good news, Tony," I said. "Looks like you'll be able to keep using the building."

Tony was relieved. The parish, like just about every Catholic parish in the state that runs a school, has to rely on contributions. That was what the meeting had been about. We were trying to dream up ways of generating perhaps one- twentieth of the $200 million in construction funds that the state plans to throw at Hoboken.

Still, the MonDon parents were happy to pay about $7,000 a year in tuition to send their kids to a school that is inferior in every respect to the building that is not good enough for Hoboken kids. Why is that? The Bunsen burners, of course. That must be the reason.

If there is a reason. Since its inception, I've been studying the state's $6 billion school construction program ordered by the state Supreme Court for the so-called "poor" school districts. And it's clear that the politicians who initiated it failed to gather the most basic data -- such as whether the districts in question are in fact poor. Hoboken sure isn't. Meanwhile, if you check the Schools Construction Corp. Web site (www.njscc.com), you'll find it boasts of the grand opening of the Shark River Hills Elementary School in Neptune. Shark River Hills is a lovely suburban neighborhood full of $400,000 homes, yet it got $61 million worth of free school construction aid on the theory that it is poor.

If you think the Trenton crowd will ever deliver on property tax reform, I invite you to ponder the unpleasant fact that both parties participated in this porkfest. The Whitman administration thought it up and pushed through the initial bonding without voter approval. The Democrats, meanwhile, are now chatting up the prospect of pushing through another $3 billion in bonding after the election.

So here's my advice to you, humble taxpayer: Keep your coffee maker in good working order. You'll be getting up early to pay for this fiasco for the next 20 years or so.

Paul Mulshine is a Star-Ledger columnist


Comments (1)

Bill Payer
Said this on 9-29-2005 At 09:18 pm
I laughed until I realized I was the one who was paying for it.

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