The South Orange – Maplewood Board of Education unanimously passed the 2015/16 district goals at its meeting on October 19.
This year, the board decided to greatly streamline the language of the goals. (The goals passed on Monday can be found on the district website. For comparison, here are the goals passed by the board in August 2014.)
The goals originally consisted of four areas: (1) student learning (2) professional staff (3) engagement and outreach and (4) resource management. This year, the board added two new goals: (5) to “create a framework for advancing work of district to include the collaborative development of a comprehensive Strategic Plan,” and (6) to require external approvals including renewal of Middle State Accreditation for Columbia High School and to obtain approval from the Office of Civil Rights for proposals to address the issues outlined in the resolution agreement.
“The shortened district goals… are keyed to quantitative and qualitative provisions in [Superintendent Dr. John Ramos’] contract, under which he is eligible to receive additional pay under New Jersey law for meeting certain targets,” said BOE President Wayne Eastman in an email. “Going forward, our plan is to engage the community in developing a comprehensive strategic plan, and then action plans and measurable objectives linked to the major elements of the strategic plan.”
The goal of resource management came under discussion as Board 1st Vice President Madhu Pai proposed a motion to eliminate language that she said promotes the board’s ability to raise property taxes above the state-mandated 2% operating budget tax cap. (The board can vote to assess a levy above the 2% cap by using “banked cap” from previous years.)
The language reads, with the sentence in question bolded.
- Approve a 2016-17 operating budget that aligns with District Goals, with a year-over-year tax impact not greater than 2% for the operating budget if at all feasible. Should, after exhausting all feasible options to reduce costs, it be impossible to limit the tax impact to 2% without substantially impeding the district’s ability to meet its goals, banked cap may be used.
Pai sees the ability to raise taxes as creating a mentality that budget cuts are the only option. She said the district needs to figure out “how to make our dollars work harder” as “this language leads us to the same old actions.”
The board voted 4-3 with one abstention against the measure, with Pai, Eastman and Donna Smith in favor and Elizabeth Baker, Maureen Jones, Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and Johanna Wright opposed. (Jeff Bennett abstained and Beth Daugherty was absent.)
Baker spoke vehemently against the motion, noting that not allowing for the board to go above the 2% cap would be “setting up the superintendent for failure.” For instance, if the state reduces the amount of aid it gives to SOMSD, she said, without that legal option of raising taxes, teacher layoffs would necessarily take place. Wright argued that there are places to cut in the budget such as the use of consultants, but that “the superintendent needs their discretion.”
“The Board of Education has to consider taxpayer stress,” said Eastman in an email, “[and] the sentence in question struck me as signaling an unnecessary receptivity to raising taxes.”
Pai said her hope in making the motion was for the board “to take an actual position on taxpayer sensitivity, as well as send a signal to Administration that we expect this year’s budget process to be different.”
Pai said the first sentence of the goal already states a budget will be delivered within the 2% cap if feasible; to reiterate it “makes me think the Board wants a way out of holding to the 2% cap, to use banked cap.”
The board should stop looking at cuts and taxing authority as the only options for the budget, she said, and encourage the administration to come up with more “creative solutions” and find other sources of revenue.