WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education approved the 2017-18 school year’s preliminary budget, which increases taxes by 4.09 percent and uses all of the school district’s banked cap accumulated during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.
The proposed budget, which only Vice President Irv Schwarzbaum voted against during the board’s special March 22 meeting, features a total tax levy of $139,334,915. That is a $5,480,537 difference from last year’s total levy of $133,854,378.
As the average assessed value for a house in West Orange is $338,129, the typical homeowner will pay $271.43 more annually in school taxes than last year.
The tax increase comes as the school district faces rising health care costs and no increase in state aid. To help offset that situation, it was decided that the district should use its accumulated $2,185,503 in banked cap in addition to raising taxes by the state-mandated 2-percent cap, or $131,429,941. That amounts to a general fund tax levy of $133,615,444. While the tax hike technically falls under the 2-percent state-mandated cap, the addition of items such as debt service legally push it higher.
To get the total tax levy, that amount is added to the debt service of $5,719,471, which is a whopping 14.36-percent increase from last year’s $5,001,495. Business administrator John Calavano said the reason for the sizeable increase stems from a mistake the school district made in 2007 when reporting projects to the New Jersey Department of Education. Calavano said the district was supposed to inform the NJDOE that it had received grant money for those projects, but it instead reported that it was seeking debt service. As a result, the West Orange School District was overpaid by $1.2 million, and the state now expects the WOSD to pay back that money after the mistake was discovered in an audit.
Usually New Jersey insists that municipalities pay back funds one year later, but Calavano said he was able to negotiate a three-year window instead. Some of that money will be paid back through the 2017-18 budget, which is why the debt service — and the total tax levy — is higher than normal.
All of these issues have put the district in a tough financial position, with a budget that a majority of board members could not admit to liking. That included Ron Charles, who said the document will need a lot of work before it is given final approval May 1. Mark Robertson agreed, adding that he feels the administration and board has to do better. Robertson said he also hopes the WOSD will continue to pursue grants that could fund initiatives because it pains him to have to cut any staff member.
But Schwarzbaum was the only board member to think the budget was completely unacceptable, voting against it despite facing the possibility that the district could be penalized and Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky could lose his certification if the BOE did not submit a preliminary budget to Essex County by the following day, March 23. Schwarzbaum’s concern was that the document factored in approximately $1.3 million that the district would save if the West Orange Education Association were to accept the 10/20 health care plan the board is offering. Though the board members might assume the union will take the deal, he said WOEA members did not indicate during the meeting that would be the case, so budgeting with the $1.3 million is premature.
“If now we’re hearing that there is a high probability of an unlikely outcome, it’s not a good decision,” Schwarzbaum said, stressing that the budget must be reworked without using the $1.3 million. “Are we fooling ourselves here?”
Despite their concerns, many of the board members acknowledged that the preliminary budget was an improvement over the three options presented a couple of days earlier at the March 20 BOE meeting. While those options featured a minimum of 52 jobs being cut, the budget approved by the board covers the reduction of 42 positions, including 13 teachers, 20 full-time and four part-time paraprofessionals, two supervisors, two assistant principals, three administrative assistants, one clerical aide and one technology technician.
And Rutzky said no one takes those layoffs lightly.
“Nobody wants anybody to be cut,” Rutzky said. “It’s personal lives we are talking about, people’s careers, people’s livelihood. But unfortunately we have to make very difficult decisions, and we have to determine what has the biggest impact and what has the least impact.”
In addition to the staff reductions, the budget includes the eliminations of five leased buses. According to Rutzky, that just means older vehicles will not be taken out of the bus fleet this year. There will be no impact on the bus routes or pickup times, he said.
The budget also features numerous additions intended to improve the school district as well, including the hiring of four teachers, one principal and one custodian. The latter two positions are for the pre-school building the district is planning to lease. In fact, Rutzky said the budget originally included the termination of a fourth administrative assistant and a nurse, but the advent of the pre-school allowed those jobs to simply be moved over to the new building instead of hiring new people.
On top of that, the budget includes the additions of several classes, including a science, technology, engineering and math program at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels so students will be better prepared for high school, as well as dance II class to accommodate the many students who took the popular elements of dance class introduced last year. A new science program for students in kindergarten through grade five will also be added, as required by the state, and Rutzky said two pilot programs are currently under way so the district can see which one works best.
As usual, the 2017-18 preliminary budget included plenty of professional development such as ways of combating over-assessment and instructional strategies for teaching ESL students. Educators will also continue to receive guidance on how best to incorporate technology into their lessons, with the superintendent pointing out that electronics are meaningless if used incorrectly.
Technology is indeed a big part of the budget, which provides for the completion of the WOSD’s one-to-one Chromebook initiative as well as the increase of bandwidth to support the growing demand for technological resources. Safety is a major priority too, with the budget calling for the addition or upgrade of security cameras at schools districtwide.
Of course the preliminary budget included a range of capital improvement projects as well, from asphalt and concrete repairs to asbestos removal and the renovation of the high school’s Jr. ROTC room. For Rutzky, this work is essential.
“When you have old buildings, you have to put money back into those old buildings,” Rutzky said. “If you don’t, they deteriorate very quickly. So it’s something that’s important that clearly doesn’t go unnoticed to us because we live in it every single day.”
Even with these additions, many WOSD employees and parents had ideas for changes the board should make. WOEA President Mark Maniscalco, for one, said putting off leasing the pre-school could save the district a lot of money. Maniscalco also urged the board to put the budget before the public so it could vote on whether the district should break the cap and raise the tax levy further.
Robertson, however, was not so sure that would be a good move. Though he himself would be willing to pay extra in taxes to help West Orange schools, he said many residents in difficult financial situations may not be so eager to do so. If the budget is put up for referendum, he said there is a good chance it will be rejected. That would put the budget in the hands of the Township Council, thus taking the power away from the Board of Education.
“I’m a person who’s known for doing something different, not being afraid to push the envelope,” Robertson said. “But I thought to myself, ‘That is a huge risk.’ And the numbers just don’t bear out that the reward is there.”
Not leasing the pre-school building now would also be a mistake, Robertson said. The district’s schools are already bursting at the seams, he said, with more students possibly on the way once the residential developments in town are completed. He said a separate pre-school will take pressure off of Kelly Elementary School, where the pre-school program is currently housed. And he said the WOSD has to act now because it cannot afford to miss another opportunity as it has in the past.
Rutzky added that the property owner will lease the building to the district at a rate per square foot, which he said is much cheaper than the average rate in West Orange. Plus, he said the fact that the building is a vacant school allows the WOSD to move right in without having to spend money on alterations.
Another issue brought up by the public was whether culinary arts — a class that is included in the budget — is really necessary at this point. Rutzky answered that the district indeed does need it so that its Career and Technical Education Program can be certified.
Some parents also questioned how the district could legally cut paraprofessionals, to which the superintendent responded that it is only illegal to terminate those who work one-on-one with a special education student as part of the child’s Individualized Education Program. None of the 24 paraprofessionals being reduced fall into that category, he said. They are all overage paraprofessionals, which means they are not working with any particular student but are kept in a classroom just in case a special education student enters the class and requires a paraprofessional to be there.
Resident Cindy Matute-Brown asked whether any of the positions being cut would be privatized, to which Rutzky answered that that would not be the case. Matute-Brown also posed the question of how the district’s central office is being affected.
“All schools are being affected because you’re taking away staff,” Matute-Brown said. “I have not, however, heard of any discussion about any administrative positions being cut. We’re always top-heavy, we’re always administration-heavy. So I’m wondering, have you discussed any cuts at the Board of Ed.?”
Two of the positions being cut are at the Board of Education level, Rutzky said, with additional reductions possible.
After everyone had their say and the preliminary budget was approved, Robertson pointed out that now work can be done to make the final budget the best it can be. And the WOSD community hopes the board is successful, with Liberty Middle School library media specialist Lisa Touzeau particularly urging the administration and BOE to think frugally.
“When I’m at the mall and I see Gucci and Gap, I know I can’t afford Gucci,” Touzeau said. “I buy Gap because if I buy Gucci, I can’t pay my bills.”
Photos by Sean Quinn