Updated March 16, 2015 with a clarification about allocation of cultural arts and field trip funds for Seth Boyden School from Acting Superintendent James Memoli.
In its effort to bring in a balanced 2015/16 school budget while keeping tax increases in check, the South Orange-Maplewood School District is still proposing to eliminate world languages from the elementary schools but has scrapped a proposal to cut an elementary school reading intervention specialist after receiving feedback from the Board of Education.
The district also is adding teachers and personnel in other areas, including the new Montrose Early Learning Center, the two middle schools, and a fifth-grade class at Seth Boyden School, and increasing technology spending. Cuts are being proposed to elementary school teachers (two positions, due to decreased enrollment) and to summer programs.
District Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider presented the revised budget at a special community budget forum on Thursday night. Roughly a dozen people attended, and a handful spoke – several of whom were there to again ask the district to increase its funding to the Seth Boyden Elementary School.
The retention of the reading specialist was the only real change from a similar presentation Schneider made earlier this week. The tax hike to residents would remain the same, with a proposed operating budget tax impact of 2.31% (which translates to an actual impact of 2%, as the cost of debt service is lower this year for the district).
The average Maplewood household would pay an additional $121 in its annual schools taxes; in South Orange that number would be $253. Schneider stressed that those amounts were estimates and would almost certainly change once the final budget was in.
The Board of Education will adopt the preliminary budget to send to the county at its meeting on Monday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m. On Monday, April 27, the board will hold a public hearing and will vote on the final budget and the tax levy.
To give comments and feedback on the budget, email email@example.com. The email will go to all Board of Education members.
The district is planning to use $330,000 of “banked cap” from previous years, which state law allows to make up shortfalls due to increasing enrollment.
To make up the $85,000 for retaining the reading specialist, the district is proposing to restructure the positions of four 6-12 grade subject supervisors, by moving them to the high school, where they will also teach classes (thereby saving some personnel costs).
Eliminating world language will mean the reduction of three full-time teachers. The district is adding five full-time teachers to the new Montrose Early Learning Center and adding one new team (and one new teacher) to each middle school.
Overall, the district is proposing to cut 12 full-time positions, but with the positions being added it leads to a net total loss of 3.4 full-time employees.
In addition, the district is eliminating a line item of assistant superintendent; however, Schneider said that was a “placeholder” and might change with the hiring of a new superintendent.
Seth Boyden parent Tia Swanson came before to board to ask for more help for the school, which has a much higher percentage of lower-income students than other district schools.
“We ask that you pledge to keep classes at Seth Boyden as small as possible, certainly well under the district maximums,” said Swanson, who also asked for a second adult in some rooms with larger classes.
Swanson also asked that the school’s social worker be increased from four days to five. “He has more than enough work to occupy him.” She also requested an additional $10,000 for student field trips. Schneider and Acting Superintendent Jim Memoli confirmed that Seth Boyden currently receives between $6-7,000 more than the other elementary schools for field trips. (In a followup email, Memoli offered this further clarification: “Seth Boyden currently receives between $6,000-$7,000 more than the other elementary schools to be used for cultural arts or field trip activities.”)
Swanson said while it is true that South Orange and Maplewood residents are highly taxed, they also are wealthy towns, and the district needs to spend more money because it is currently “failing” in its goal to close the achievement gap.
“You are not asking people to spend money they don’t have and that most can not afford,” Swanson said. “You are not wasting money. You are doing the work of the democracy, expensive but necessary even noble work: educating the nation’s children and its next generation of citizens and workers. So spend the money you need to do it well.”
Steve Latz, chair of the Maplewood Citizen’s Budget Advisory Committee (CBAC) agreed, noting that state law allows superintendents discretion over class sizes if circumstances warrant it. He said the district’s decision not to take advantage of this exception at both Seth Boyden and Clinton School, “puts a lie to the notion of closing the achievement gap.”
Latz said Seth Boyden classes all were at their maximum size this year, and while teachers are making a “heroic” effort, some are not succeeding and are burning themselves out.
Noting that between one-half to two-thirds of every Seth Boyden class consists of low-income students, Latz questioned whether the board could meet its goals with the current proposed budget.
“The district has crossed way over the line at Seth Boyden; you need to act now.” He suggested finding money to save at Columbia High School — for instance, by offering more online courses — that would free up funding. “Get $400,000 from CHS and put it in the headcount at Seth Boyden.”
The board members all expressed sympathy to the concerns of Seth Boyden, with Madhu Pai calling the extent of the need there “somewhat shocking.”
Board member Beth Daugherty said the Facilities and Finance Committee have been discussing putting more resources at the school. Schneider said “there is money there [at Seth Boyden]; it’s up to the principal how it’s spent.”
Board member Donna Smith said that PTAs and PTOs at other schools were better able to raise funds to support additional programs and projects. “I would hope other schools wouldn’t see [giving extra funding to Seth Boyden] as inappropriate.”
BOE member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad said the board was “committed to addressing” the Seth Boyden funding issue, but that the administration had to find the right balance. “I wish we could snap our fingers” and find the money, she said, but “the pace of change is not what any of us would like it to be.”
“We are on this, we are on it,” board member Johanna Wright assured Seth Boyden parents.
Memoli said he and Asst. Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Susan Grierson were reviewing making the social worker full-time at Seth Boyden, and were also looking at the discretion they had with Title 1 funding — which is based on the population of low-income students.
Regarding the social worker, BOE member Elizabeth Baker said she wasn’t advocating “robbing Peter to pay Paul”; however, Daugherty said addressing Seth Boyden’s needs might in fact mean taking resources from other schools. She said funding would not be “equally distributed” but would be equitable. “There might be pushback” from other schools, she said.
Meanwhile, Schneider said the district’s deficit will continue to grow in a way that is unsustainable, given the proposed enrollment increases it is facing in upcoming years. “We’re looking at huge deficits year to year,” she said.
Schneider showed a chart projecting the SOMSD budget for the next five years, assuming a 2% cap on taxes. The deficit will continue to grow substantially, reaching a whopping $20.6 million by the 2020-21 school year.
“Until we change the way we do business, we’re going to be having this same discussion every year,” Schneider said.