South Orange-Maplewood School District Considering Budget Over 2% Cap

by The Village Green
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South Orange-Maplewood School District staff are asking the Board of Education to approve a 2015/16 budget that would assess a levy above the 2% state-mandated operating budget tax cap by using $330,000 in “banked cap” from previous years.

At a budget workshop on March 4, five of the nine BOE members expressed interest in supporting an operating budget tax impact of 2.31% as proposed (or 2% all-in including debt service).

The impact on the average Maplewood household would be an additional $121 per year; the impact on the average South Orange household would be $253. At the 2% cap, the impact would be $109 per Maplewood household and $239 per South Orange household.

District Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider explained that, even with the additional $330,000, the district would still be cutting world languages in the elementary schools, as well as an elementary school reading intervention specialist and a high guidance counselor, among other cuts.

Schneider explained that the district had seen some savings in lowered health care costs (about $400,000 less due to employees taking on more costs) and lowered debt service as well as some increased revenues from extraordinary aid and grants and new income for tuition from Montrose School. Schneider said that refinancing bonds lowered the debt service payments by about $100,000. She reported that state aid came in “flat” from last year.

Still, she said, expenses and revenues are roughly equal: “It ends up being a wash,” said Schneider, and cuts were still needed even if the Board of Education approved a levy over the cap.

Schneider reported that staffing remained “flat whereas there have been increasing enrollments, making it harder to balance the budget.” The budget plan Schneider presented included a 15.5 FTE (full-time employee) reduction, but also included 11.1 FTEs that have been added. Schneider noted that a number of the FTE reductions had to do with closing sections on the elementary level as the enrollment bubble moves onto the middle schools. (See Schneider’s presentation below.)

After the adjustment of $330,000, the district still has $1.6 million in banked cap available for next year’s budget, said Schneider.

Acting Superintendent James Memoli said the cut in world languages “pains me the most,” saying that for 20 years he taught world languages and was also world languages supervisor for a time. He noted, however, that previously world languages was offered several times a week at multiple grade levels. Memoli said offering world languages one day a week in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade “pedagogically…doesn’t work. I wish I could be here asking you for the resources… to make it a viable program.”

Memoli assured the Board that the district would not be violating any requirement in the state statute and that he has checked the potential cut with the county superintendent. Memoli said that the afterschool FLES program was still in place and the district “may be able to expand that and hopefully some day can bring [world languages] back the way it should be brought back.”

Board member Maureen Jones asked why the reading specialist was being cut. Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Susan Grierson said that the reading specialist was “another cut we wish we didn’t have to make.” However, Grierson said, “We’re doing so well.” She reported that the “programming is working” and was “meeting goals.” She added, “There is room to reorganize and there can be one cut.”

Board member Madhu Pai said she too was “saddened to see world languages and the reading intervention teacher go,” but, she added, with world languages, “I’m personally seeing it and the lack of effect that a once-a-week program has.”

Pai said they worried about “hacking away at elementary schools” — a point reiterated by other board members such as Elizabeth Baker.  “This is where we have the best opportunity to stem the achievement gaps and help students get ahead…. We really should be careful about how many cuts we make at the elementary level.”

However, Pai supported not using the $330,000 and keeping the budget at or below 2% for the operating budget. Board members Johanna Wright, Wayne Eastman and Donna Smith also supported having the administration go back to find additional savings, but the majority of the board did not support the move.

Board member Beth Daugherty was interested in following up on an idea broached last year of giving high school varsity athletes credit for after-school sports activities. Daugherty noted that there was “a lot of pushback from the physical education department” but that “there was widespread support on the board.” Daugherty said that she felt it was more important to get students “to read by 3rd grade vs. getting physical education for students already playing in varsity sports.”

Daugherty, Jones, Baker, and board members Jeff Bennett and Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad supported the $330,000 adjustment — with Bennett saying he would go beyond that and ask that the reading specialist be added back in. Bennett felt that, with the improving economy, taxpayers could better shoulder the added impact.

Board member Johanna Wright said she was “really concerned also about the things happening with young people…. I think we can do a better job of preserving programs…. I think we have the money; we just don’t know how to spend it.” She felt that the district was wasting money on “experimental things,” such as the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme (IB).

(Daugherty later said that the cost to the district for IB would be only $50,000 for 2015/16.)

Wright also felt that Montrose was not being used appropriately for revenue, saying that she felt that special education would yield millions instead of “thousands of dollars.” She did feel that the PE proposal raised by Daugherty was “unfair” to the athletes who might want to try something else. She also decried the loss of the high school guidance counselor. “It’s really important today especially that our kids have someone they can go to.”

Bennett said this was a very hard budget though not quite as hard as last year. He spoke at length about what he said was the unfair formula used for awarding state aid. “This year there was not an attempt to run the formula…which is supposed to give more money for needier districts. The Christie admin didn’t do that.” Instead, said Bennett, despite increased enrollment, SOMSD’s aid remained flat, with additional money only going to districts participating in inter-district choice. “Our student population increased by 800 students since 2007 and our aid is less than it was then. Next year we’ll have 80-100 more students and we are not going to get any additional aid.” Bennett said he felt it was time to  “try litigation” — a tactic that he said had benefited Montclair.

Schneider outlined would what happen if the Board of Education added some cuts back in (“they are all very difficult cuts to make; it gets harder and harder each year,” said Schneider). Schneider said that adding back in the reading specialist would cost $85,000, leading to a 2.39% operating budget tax impact and 2.08% all-in. Adding back the three world language FTEs would yield a 2.55% operating budget levy increase and 2.23% all in. All four positions back in would cost $340,000 or a 2.63% increase to the operating budget levy; 2.31% all in.

Pai said she was not sure what the extra money from the cap is “buying us” and that it was “hard to understand what we’d be losing.” She was interested in looking at the suggestion regarding physical education and varsity athletes: “It’s time to turn over every stone.” Pai also said, “We have to do a better job at having sit-downs with both towns at the same time and figuring out how we’re going to help each other….  The quicker we can do that the better.”

Following up on Pai’s comment, Baker asked Schneider, “What does the $330,ooo protect us from?” With each FTE counted at $85,ooo and “eking out every penny in operational expenses … are we looking at another 4 FTE cuts?”

“Yes,” said Schneider.

“I’d be concerned about going further with more FTEs while enrollment is soaring,” said Baker.

The BOE will hold a community forum on March 12 at 7:30 p.m. The preliminary budget to be introduced on March 16 regular meeting and the final budget approved and the tax levy adopted at the April 27 regular meeting.

Watch the video of the meeting here.

View Schneider’s presentation here:

Download (PDF, 1.33MB)


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