South Orange-Maplewood Board of Ed Struggles With Saving Jobs vs. Using Banked Cap

by The Village Green
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Editor’s Note: Village Green will be publishing a separate story on the Columbia High School pool discussion from the March 7 Budget Hearing.

After hearing multiple public comments from residents at a South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education 2016-17 Budget Hearing last night asking the Board to save two secondary school librarian positions and elementary staff and keep the Columbia High School pool open, Board of Education members seemed split over whether or not they could save positions without raising taxes.

The Board’s Finance, Facilities & Technology committee will be reviewing the implications of keeping the pool open at its meeting this week, whether short-term or long-term.

Meanwhile, the Board’s Excellence & Equity committee will be reviewing the impact of four proposed full-time employee cuts at the elementary school level and the loss of one library media specialist at the middle school level (with South Orange Middle School and Maplewood Middle School to share one librarian instead of each having its own in 2016-17) as well as a librarian at Columbia High School.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Ramos told the Board and the public at a Budget Hearing on Monday night, “No-one here is suggesting that any of the reductions are a good idea. It’s just the reality of having to balance a budget…. What we’ve done is we’ve tried to bring our best thinking to this process, including frankly the opinions and input of all the building principals.”

Ramos did urge the Board to use its expiring banked taxing authority of $409,103 to save the four elementary school positions and noted that the two intervention specialists to be saved would be sent to Seth Boyden School, instead of other elementary school, saying that there were “special circumstances related to Seth Boyden” (“As Seth Boyden goes, so goes the district,” said Ramos).

However, Board of Education 2nd Vice President Madhu Pai expressed an interest in having Ramos and District Administrator Cheryl Schneider revisit the budget to find other areas to cut or other efficiencies so that the district does not use its banked taxing authority to avoid cuts.

Schneider again reviewed the impact of using $409,000 in banked taxing authority in order to save four positions at the elementary level, a plan that seemed to have widespread support in the community and from several board members.

(See Village Green’s previous stories on budget presentations here, here and here.)

“We’re at the point where we just don’t have more room for efficiencies in these areas outside the classroom, so we are going into the classroom,” Schneider reiterated, pulling up a slide called “Ongoing Ways SOMSD Contains Costs.” As noted last week, Schneider said that district had utilized various means to contain costs in recent years including having employees make health care contributions, shared services with the towns, cooperative purchasing with other districts and more. She also went over a slide labeled “Spending reductions for 16-17,” noting that the district would not be spending money on everything from textbooks to memberships to periodicals this year.

At least week’s Budget Workshop, Board of Ed members had asked Schneider to look into the impact of either reducing or getting rid of a $3,300 waiver paid to district employees who opt out of health care coverage. Schneider said that 109 employees are waiving their insurance currently for a $359,700 expense; reducing the amount of the waiver would reduce that payout to $196,200. Schneider said, “Even with the paying out of the waivers… we are still seeing a savings of $1.4 million from the opt-outs.” The unknown is whether or not the $1,800 would be enough to entice employees to continue to opt-out at the same rate.

In other budget news, Schneider said that the special education budget had been adjusted longterm with the anticipation of a proposal for an expansion of a number of programs that would add staff initially but ultimately offset those expenditures by returning out-of-district placement students back into the district. Schneider noted that the district’s five-year budget projection already looks much different with the proposed programs, reducing the projected 2020 deficit from $20 million to $12 million. Details of the proposal have not been released to the Board or the public, and the Board’s Finance, Facilities and Technology Committee is awaiting an analysis on current out-of-district placements.

Regarding the budget in light of this change and the ongoing Strategic Plan process, Schneider said, “Doing things differently doesn’t mean it has to cost more.”

Although several residents have expressed a willingness to have their taxes raised to negate cuts during public speaking portions of recent Board meetings (with the exception of one resident last night), Pai and fellow Board of Education member Donna Smith said that they urged the administration to go back and do another round of “due diligence” to see if the four elementary positions could be saved without using banked cap.

“I’m surprised and not surprised to see cuts at the elementary level,” said Pai, who added that, with passage of Access & Equity policy, “we can’t do that without a very strong foundation.”

Pai expressed her frustration at not wanting to make cuts and simultaneously not wanting to raise taxes: “I do not think that those cuts are viable … at the same time we cannot keep using banked cap. … Can this be the very last year that we accept a budget process that has been the same for the past decades with the only two prospects cuts or tax increases?”

Pai urged Ramos to “blow up the budget and find out how to find revenue but not on the backs of taxpayers” in future years, then challenged him to “go back and find a way to keep” the four full-time elementary positions without using the banked cap. Pai said that, regarding raising taxes, “We can’t say we are supporting our most vulnerable students while at the same time pushing out those families…. Those people aren’t represented here tonight.”

Smith agreed with Pai. “I’ve always been a proponent of sticking to the 2% cap and that’s not going to change,” said Smith.

However, Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker balked at the suggestion of holding a vote to direct the administration to “go back” and find funds to keep the four elementary positions without using banked cap.

“They’ve been charged with that already,” said Baker. “I would hope that we don’t need a vote to encourage administration to make every effort.”

“But what I’m hearing today is there is appetite to use that cap,” said Pai.

One Board member who seemed to express that appetite was Chris Sabin. “There are things at the elementary level that we cannot reduce,” said Sabin, who added, “People move here for the education, they do not move here because they are questioning the taxes.”

“We are going to have difficult decisions,” said Sabin.

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