Shortly after midnight, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education approved a resolution to send its 2015/16 budget of $123,594,280 to the county. The district is required to submit its budget by Friday, March 20.
The budget represents a 2.41% operating budget tax levy increase — or 2.1% all-in as the cost of debt service is lower this year for the district.
On April 27, the Board of Education will approve the final budget and tax levy.
At the March 12 budget workshop, the Board of Education discussed a proposed operating budget tax impact of 2.31% or 2% all-in. That proposed budget eliminated world languages from the elementary schools but scrapped a proposal to cut an elementary school reading intervention specialist.
However, in a 5-4 vote, the Board ultimately decided to go a little higher. The new rate adds another $110,000 to the budget — not enough to save elementary world languages but enough to give the Board some additional wiggle room to potentially move budget items around and save some other cuts at the elementary school level.
Early in the evening, Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider said that, while the board needed to approve the dollar amount of the budget tonight, there was discretion to move dollars throughout the year or between now and final approval of the budget.
Board members and members of the public repeatedly raised concerns about the disproportionate cuts to the elementary schools. However, there were also concerns voiced about taking resources from the high school to beef up elementary staffing.
With regard to the budget impact on elementary schools, Elizabeth Baker noted that Columbia High School “has a plethora of classes with 15 or fewer students. If they are remedial we need them.” But she said with the achievement gap beginning in kindergarten and first grade, “I don’t understand how we justify the cuts.” She said she wanted to address the needs at Seth Boyden and Clinton schools. “I’m concerned we are being short sighted at imposing cuts at the elementary level.”
Acting Superintendent James Memoli noted that CHS has “fewer small classes than ever.” He cautioned against eliminating smaller classes. When you look at singletons — or standalone classes — he said, “then you are beginning to cut programs. Some are AP classes. It’s very complicated.”
Board President Wayne Eastman added, “bear in mind the variance is bigger in the high school” regarding class size. “Variance is significantly less in elementary school classes.” Nonetheless, Eastman said that he “heartily seconded” more study of the matter.
Former Board President Beth Daugherty noted, “Our high school is our flagship…. Everybody should look at the high school and that’s where you want to go.” Still she sympathized with Baker: “If we don’t make sure at the elementary level that little kids can read they are not going to take advantage of all the high school can offer.”
Daugherty offered a bit of a compromise: She proposed taking “a critical look of how we offer things at the high school” rather than cutting course offerings. Daugherty mentioned how the board had formerly discussed online courses and partnering with Essex County College.
“We’re approving a number tonight. How we get to that number? There’s still time. I am worried about resources at our elementary schools. It only gets harder from there,” said Daugherty. “As the kids fall behind, we pay more money to get them back up to speed.”
During public comments, Amelia Riekenberg spoke on behalf of the Seth Boyden PTA which has been lobbying for more funds due to the schools disproportionate number of children who qualify for free and reduced price lunches. However, Riekenberg’s comments were more inclusive of other elementary schools this time, including Clinton School.
“We’ve stressed that Seth Boyden is a wonderful place where students strive — largely due to exceptional efforts of teachers,” said Riekenberg, but she said, the worry was that teachers would burn out at current class sizes and staffing levels. She noted that perhaps Seth Boyden parents had seemed “over the top” in their pleas but that “it’s the facts on the ground that are over the top.” She asked that the board provide “enough staffing at Seth Boyden, Clinton and other elementary schools for all students to be reading at grade level at end of second grade and proficient or above by fifth grade.” In the end, she thanked the Board: “You’ve listened to us. You’ve engage with us. And we are extremely grateful.”
Board members also struggled with the idea of raising taxes.
Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad noted that there are “always people asking that you lower their tax burden. I struggle with the state of New Jersey in general — who’s going to want to be here? How is every school district going to continue to be here under these circumstances? … We’re on this untenable path and I don’t see Superman coming to save us.” She said she hoped “there are those who understand that and want to invest in our schools. In the end, you have to be brave and invest in your schools.”
Beth Daugherty noted the political risk of voting for a higher tax increase. “Come election time there are those adamant about not raising taxes … that plays out at election time.” She noted that she was not running again. Nonetheless, she said she was “torn” about going beyond the $330,000 originally proposed to exceed the cap.
After the vote, Board member Madhu Pai sent the following in an email: “I am tremendously disappointed about the outcome of the budget vote tonight. It pains me that we board members spent so much time talking about needing to find ‘creative solutions’ to our budget woes, and then defaulted to the one convenient solution we know – raising taxes. We can’t tax our way out of a $20MM budget deficit! We can’t hide our heads in the sand about needing to make painful cuts. We can’t continue to stop just short of asking Administration to dig deeper and find those creative solutions.”
She added, “To suggest that the budget vote has something to do with elections is ridiculous. The majority of people who came out to speak on the budget tonight came in favor of tax increases. But someone needs to speak up for all the people who weren’t there – maybe because they’re at their second job, struggling to pay the mortgage or rent so that their kids can live here and have the chance at a good education. You can’t simultaneously talk about helping disadvantaged children, and then price their parents (and many others) out of the district. But that’s exactly what we set in motion tonight.”
The final vote in favor was Elizabeth Baker, Jeff Bennett, Beth Daugherty, Maureen Jones and Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad. Madhu Pai, Johanna Wright, Donna Smith and Wayne Eastman voted no. The motion passed 5-4.