Pandemic’s Impact on SOMSD Budget is Offset by Savings from School Closure

by Bruno J. Navarro
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The South Orange-Maplewood School District almost certainly stands to see a loss of revenue in the 2020-21 school year, depending on local property-tax collections and what New Jersey state lawmakers determine around the question of financial aid — yet the picture might not be as dire as expected because of savings from schools being closed.

That was the message from Board of Education member Anthony Mazzocchi in his last update as chair of the Finance Committee at Monday’s virtual BOE meeting. Mazzocchi said that Trenton had delayed its final payment for the current fiscal year to the summer, and that local unemployment in the wake of the coronavirus crisis could decrease property tax payments. 

“It’s not great news, but I will say we are in a much better place financially as a district than we were a few years ago,” he said.

Last week, the BOE unanimously approved a $152.4 million budget that was unchanged from its preliminary iteration despite the looming economic hardships facing the state and local communities, as well as the nation. The budget includes nearly $7.5 million in direct state aid, a 13 percent increase from the previous year, an amount now in question.

“Where we are right now, we’re tracking about $1 million better than we were at this time last year,” said Paul Roth, the SOMSD business administrator.

Roth said that the savings came from not having to pay utilities or for staff to work extracurricular events since public schools in South Orange and Maplewood first closed on March 16 in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. On May 4, Gov. Phil Murphy announced that schools would be shuttered for the rest of the academic year.

That means the school district is on track to post a budget surplus after June 30. “This can also affect the 2020-21 budget because if we’re spending the dollars now, we’ll need to reduce expenditures next year,” he added. “It also affects the 2021-22 school budget.” 

SOMSD will face a choice of whether to use some of the surplus now or take a wait-and-see approach, Roth said, adding that there was no single right answer.

“Actually, I could argue both sides equally well,” he said.

Mazzocchi also said that the school district’s plan to purchase 1,000 Chromebook computers for student use — to replace laptops that are a decade old — at a cost of a half-million dollars might need to be reconsidered or postponed.

“We just want to be responsible in the way we purchase it,” he said.

Board member Elizabeth Baker said that NJ Senate President Stephen Sweeney recently recommended that districts keep their original budgets in place but have a Plan B ready, saying that it was possible districts might still receive aid at current 2019-20 levels.

In other BOE news:

Integration plan: Superintendent Ronald Taylor said that last month’s video update to the SOMSD Intentional Integration Initiative (III) received 2,000 views and nearly 30 comments. Many of the comments asked for more details about the school district’s plan to integrate its elementary schools to reflect the community’s racial and socioeconomic diversity, Taylor said. “We can’t fill in (details) until it’s approved.” The last in-person update took place in February.

CHS principal search: The search for a permanent principal to lead Columbia High School is down to the final two, unnamed candidates. BOE Personnel Committee Chair Robin Baker oversaw the process, which narrowed the initial field to 17 candidates selected for phone interviews. Five of them advanced to a second round of interviews conducted by a stakeholders committee and representatives from the high school, four moved forward and two withdrew. No timetable for a hire was given, but the new principal will replace interim CHS Principal Kalisha Morgan, who was selected to replace Principal Elizabeth Aaron after she was reassigned by former interim Superintendent Thomas Ficarra in July 2018.

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