Editor’s note: the full presentation on the budget can now be found on the district website and is attached below as a PDF.
The South Orange-Maplewood School District is looking at cutting 10 classroom teachers — and 20 full-time employees overall — in order to approve a 2016-17 budget within the state-mandated 2% tax levy increase cap.
The exact number and types of cuts will be revealed at a South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education budget workshop meeting on Wednesday, March 2 (meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. at 525 Academy Street, Maplewood), but Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Ramos said that district administration was looking at making those cuts “primarily” at the secondary level and “mostly” at Columbia High School.
District Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider did indicate a path to perhaps saving some of the jobs. Schneider noted that the district had $409,103 in taxing authority not used in the 2013-14 budget cycle that was set to expire if not used in the 2016-17 cycle. Schneider said that using that $409,103 would result in a 2.37% tax levy increase for an impact of 2.44%. Although property tax numbers will not be available until April, based on last year’s data, Schneider indicated that this would equate to a $180 tax increase per household in Maplewood and $234 in South Orange.
In fact, the Board has the authority to go even higher and use $1.5 million in banked taxing authority from the past few years to raise the tax levy by approximately 3.5%.
However, Schneider noted that the Board of Education had stated a goal of staying within the 2% cap at the beginning of the budget process.
In a presentation to the Board of Education on Monday night Schneider reported that total revenue for 2016-17 was estimated at $125,331,301, compared to $123,594,780 for 2015-16. She said that state aid “came out” last Thursday at $91,349 more than last year for a total of $4,307,567.
Schneider explained that the tax levy was $109,134,877 for 2015-16 and would be $111,317,574 for 2016-17 if the Board stayed at the 2% cap this year (actual impact of 2.07% for an estimated per household impact of $165 per household in Maplewood and $216 per South Orange household based on 2015 figures; Schneider noted that if similar tax adjustments happened in 2016 as did in 2015, the household impact for the two towns would be nearly even after tax appeals at $186 for Maplewood and $182 for South Orange). Schneider emphasized that the district would not know the tax apportionments until late April.
Although the district approved a more than 7% tax levy increase in 2006-07, levy increases dramatically dropped after state caps were instituted and the number has been relatively flat for the past few years as the Board of Education has either stayed at the cap or gone slightly above. Last year, the Board used about $330,000 in banked taxing authority to approve a 2.1% tax levy increase and maintain higher levels of staffing for middle school world languages.
In trying to meet the cap, Schneider said that the district was looking at spending reductions for 16-17 in the following areas:
- technology (replacement and repairs only)
- professional development (not cutting professional development but reducing travel and bringing it in district)
- elementary library supplies (instead building up classroom libraries)
- reference materials/media centers
- textbooks (no buying full sets until the district knows what direction it is going in after adoption of the strategic plan slate for November)
- paraprofessional oversight (tightening up some of the procedures for assigning paraprofessionals and looking to use them in different ways so not to have multiple paraprofessionals in one classroom, said Schneider)
- limited increases to athletics/extracurricular (“We’re not cutting back on athletics,” said Schneider, who noted that the district would be spending more with a shared program with the two towns for field maintenance and also with costs around the closing of the swimming pool and the need to pay for rental space and transportation to get swimming students to practice. “So we will need to look at scaling back in other ways [and] not be able to add things we would like to have added.”)
Some discussion was devoted to the idea of dedicating more resources to schools with higher rates of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunches. Ramos noted that, after making “sure that every school is at least adequately funded,” the district could then look at the possibility of dedicating more resources to Seth Boyden where 46% of students quality for free and reduced price lunches.
Schneider said that the district has applied for school-wide Title I funding for Seth Boyden for the 16-17 school year. She said that, while the amount of funding would not increase (it’s about $443,000 district-wide right now — including Clinton School and Maplewood Middle School), the district would have the ability “to spend it differently.” Right now, said Schneider, the district receives funding only for targeted programs.
In her presentation to the Board on Monday, Schneider noted previous presentations on the budget process focusing on special education, technology, enrollment and more. Regarding special education, Schneider said that the district was seeing an increase in referrals and out of district placements — which were increasing costs, particularly in transportation costs. “This is something we need to watch,” said Schneider.
The district was also looking carefully at health care where it has seen savings by moving from the state health care plan in November and to a private insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield. Schneider noted that health care costs would be relatively flat from 2015-16 to 2016-17.
“It is difficult,” said Schneider, who responded, “We’re looking at reimagining from the bottom up. Doing things differently, including scheduling … use of facilities. maximizing community expertise, online learning and collaborative partnerships.”
“Doing things differently doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive,” said Schneider.
Board First Vice President Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad expressed concern saying, regarding the A&E policy, that the Board wanted “to make sure we shore up all of our courses at high school and have viable college prep classes…. When I see things like cutting of professional development, I see something around support structures, it’s not so much that I want an answer … but we cannot forget the rest of CHS. All of the students are not going to take AP classes and they should have viable pathways to college…. [we’ve] gotta make sure that we are shoring up those classrooms.”
Board member Johanna Wright asked if the district was planning on cutting administrators as well as classroom teachers. Ramos responded, “Yes, we are planning to,” but added, “We can’t give number tonight because we are playing with a number of different models.”
Board member Maureen Jones asked, “What’s happening with paras?”
Schneider responded that the district was looking at changing some of the practices of how the district identifies the need for paraprofessionals “as well as the way we are scheduling them.” Schneider said that the district was not looking at reducing the number of paraprofessionals but was not able to hire as many as it would have liked if it had the budget.
The Board of Education will hold a public hearing on the budget on March 9 (after the workshop on March 2) and the Board will vote to approval a preliminary budget to send to the Essex County Superintendent at its regular meeting on March 21.