The South Orange – Maplewood Board of Education passed a $123,594,780 budget at its meeting Monday night that will retain World Language for 4th and 5th graders and allocate additional funding to elementary schools, particularly Seth Boyden School.
There will be a total tax hike of 2.10%, which represents an increase of $204 per year for the average household in South Orange, and $177 per year in Maplewood.
The budget passed 7-2, with Board members Johanna Wright and Donna Smith voting against.
“I didn’t vote for the budget because we exceeded the 2% cap and I have consistently stated that I am committed to the cap,” said Smith in an email Tuesday. Smith said the district was at a “tipping point” regarding what taxpayers can afford.
“I believe that we have to try harder to improve efficiencies [and] determine our priorities,” she said.
Overall, board members seemed pained by cuts that had to be made and resigned to the fact that the situation would likely get worse, with a projected $20 million budget deficit looming in five years.
“I’m still waiting for the big money truck to pull up,” said Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad. “This feels like Groundhog Day,” said Madhu Pai, who said the board was just “putting a bandaid on a gaping wound.”
In March the district announced it would scrap the elementary school Spanish (World Language) program; however, by restructuring and making scheduling efficiencies elsewhere it was able to restore Spanish to 4th and 5th grades and retain two out of the three of the program’s teachers.
Pai disagreed with the decision to keep what she called a “substandard” elementary language program. “We need to have discussions about what to cut,” said Pai, adding “we have so much [other] work to do.”
“I do not feel that every stone has been unturned,” she said.
Many of the board members once again expressed an unwillingness to slash too much from elementary grades; but some also cautioned against making too many cuts to Columbia High School.
“Let’s be careful at the high school,” said Lawson-Muhammad. “Let’s remember class size does matter.”
Steve Latz of the Maplewood Citizens Budget Advisory Committee said the board had not looked closely enough at creative ways to shift resources from the high school to the elementary schools.
Overall, the district is retaining the total number of fulltime classroom teachers (149), said Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider in a phone interview Tuesday, and is cutting one (rather than two) positions from the elementary schools and two (rather than one) from CHS. There will be an increase in middle school teachers to allow for three 7th-grade teams — an increase from two — at each school.
The board authorized the administration to use $110,000 in additional allowable adjustments that will be allocated to the elementary schools; a portion of which will be allocated to Seth Boyden to address requests for additional resources including an additional 5th grade teacher, increased funding for field trips/cultural arts and scheduling considerations for academic intervention and social worker support.
In response to ongoing concerns voiced by the Seth Boyden community, Acting Superintendent James Memoli said the district would strive to keep classes at the schools “as small as we can” — with a target maximum of 20 students in K, 1 and 2nd grades — depending on enrollment next year.
“The consequences of this budget [for Seth Boyden] cannot be overstated,” said parent Amelia Nickels, who said a petition requesting increased district funding had garnered over 300 signatures from Seth Boyden parents.
“Seth Boyden is not like the other schools. That is neither good nor bad, it just is,” said 4th grade Language Arts teacher Susan Brody. Brody said it had become increasingly difficult to meet the needs of all of her students in her large class, which consists of two sections of 53 students 55% of whom read below grade level.
The budget also includes staffing for the new Montrose Early Learning Center, including a director, two teachers and a nurse. In accepting her new position, the center’s director Renee Joyce told the board, “We have the ability to have a state of the art early childcare center here.”
With the expected end of the International Baccalaureate program (which the board will vote on in May), the two current IB coaches will become one Humanities elementary level coach and one middle school STEM coach. The current 6-12 grade subject supervisors will become 9-12 grade, and current K-5 supervisors will become K-8.
Board member Johanna Wright expressed frustration that the district had not thoroughly investigated a different health care plan that reportedly saved two other New Jersey towns several million dollars. Lawson-Muhammad countered that a seven-member board task force had in fact researched the option and that more data was needed before proceeding.
“How long does it take to get a [financial] quote?” Wright responded. “We are not doing the job.”