S. Orange – Maplewood Elementary Enrollment Strains Facilities, Resources

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Elementary enrollment at the kindergarten level has exceeded the demographer’s projections for the third year in a row, putting a strain on facilities and resources in the South Orange-Maplewood School District.

SOMSD Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider noted the continued kindergarten increases at her presentation of the baseline data for the 2016-17 budget at the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting on November 16 (see presentation below).

Schneider also noted that, while the rate of students receiving free and reduced price lunch (FRL) across the district remained steady at about 20%, that number had now reached 46% at the Seth Boyden Demonstration School, which she said perhaps signaled a need to redistrict in order to distribute the FRL population more evenly throughout district elementary schools.

Regarding enrollment, Schneider noted that it has increased 13% district-wide since 2007. However, although kindergarten and elementary increases were higher than expected, fewer children were entering the district at the middle school and high school level.  Still, the district would see increased facilities and staffing needs at the middle school and high school level as the larger elementary population made its way through the district.

“So we really need to be looking at the facilities .. and the support of the different levels as that enrollment switches,” said Schneider. “The main thing looking at enrollment” is “what it means financially, staffing, what our facilities look like.”

Schneider hinted that the district might be facing some difficulties with taking on debt service for capital improvements because the way that it is allowed to structure and finance debt service has changed.

“In the past we’ve sold bonds every three years or so in order to continue to do upgrades,” said Schneider, who noted that “because the way financing was structured, we’d have our rate fall off over time. We’re not allowed to do that any more…. Right now, our amount we pay year to year is flat until 2025/26. If we sell more bonds we will see our annual debt service increase every year.”

Schneider briefly touched on special education but said that a fuller report on that topic was coming at the Board of Education’s December meeting.

Schneider also noted that the district’s fund balance — “the State only allows us to keep 2% of our expenditure in our fund balance … people would call that our own rainy day fund should something come up” — would be about about $200,000 less for the coming budget.

“If we don’t have the fund balance going forward we would need to look for it elsewhere,” said Schneider. “That’s $200,000 in revenues that we’re going to have to make up.”

Regarding the lower than projected enrollment of students at the 7th and 9th grade level, Jeff Bennett asked if the district had lost students to private schools. Schneider explained that the lower numbers were not due to an increase in students leaving for private schools but because fewer people were moving into the district with students at that age.

Nonetheless, board member Elizabeth Baker called for a survey or exit interview for students leaving the district. “Repeatedly, we hear about families who don’t feel their children’s needs are being adequately met…. And they are people who moved here to send their children to public schools. I’d think that we’d look to see … if we have students who are currently in our system and are leaving why they are leaving and what we could do to retain them.” Board member Beth Daugherty said she supported Baker’s idea.

Schneider explained that the budget process and calendar would be done a “little bit differently this year.”

“A lot of the development this year is looking at the strategic planning discussions,” said Schneider, who noted that the new Access & Equity policy is “a major component that we are asking the different administrators to consider as they prepare their budgets for next year.”

Schneider said that student input would be a part of the new budget process. “We are getting input from the different administrators, and part of that is them getting input from their building. I don’t know how they’ll do it, if they’ll go to the student council or to students directly.” However, Schneider noted that Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Ramos was “asking us to flip the pyramid upside down so that students are at the top of the chart.”

Schneider said that she would be updating the Board on the budget process at its monthly meeting and that individual committees and administrators would continue to work on the budget behind the scenes. She said that a special Board meeting was scheduled for April 25, 2016 for the Board to approve the budget. She also noted that budget forums would be scheduled in March and April.

“We are now full speed ahead,” said Schneider. “We will keep you up to date each month from now until April.”

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