BOE passes 2017-18 school year budget, raises taxes

District saves grammar school Spanish to much applause

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education adopted the 2017-18 school year budget and tax levy in an 8-1 vote at its April 24 meeting. This leaves a more than $500,000 shortfall for the school district to make up, despite the fact that taxes will increase by 3.56 percent and the banked cap from the 2014-15 school year will be used.

During the vote, which took place at nearly 1 a.m. on April 25, Johanna Wright was the only board member to vote against the proposed budget, which includes $130,532,707 worth of anticipated appropriations and $128,223,444 in estimated revenue — a difference of $2,309,263.

Despite voting to use the $970,247 banked cap from 2014-15 which, when added to the district’s $823,744 in adjustments, results in $1,793,991 that can be subtracted from that difference, the district still faces a deficit of $515,272.

It also leaves the 3.56-percent tax hike, or a levy of $115,755,202. While this tax increase technically falls under the 2-percent state-mandated cap, the addition of items such as debt service legally push it higher. Considering that the average assessed value of a home in Maplewood is $396,992 and the tax rate is estimated to be $2.20, the typical resident will pay $8,723 in school taxes — $249 more than last year’s $8,474. In South Orange, where the average assessed home value is $459,258 and the tax rate is estimated to be $2.25, the typical resident will pay $10,353 in school taxes. That is $304 more than the $10,049 they spent last year.

During the past few months, many were upset by the idea that world language classes in the elementary schools may have been cut. The school district announced on April 24, however, that world language would be saved; to keep the budget figures static, the district opted not to hire two math interventionists it had been planning to add. The decision to maintain world language was met with gratitude.

“I was actually coming to talk about world language, but I got a really beautiful email today. It seems that it’s true and that you actually listen,” teacher Rocio Lopez told the board. “We got it back! Thank you so much.”

BOE Second Vice President Madhu Pai questioned whether only offering world language in grades four and five in the elementary schools is even in compliance with the state, considering the fact that the state requires K-12 world language curriculum.

Assistant Superintendent Susan Grierson responded, however, that the state was “accepting” of the fact that it is only being offered in the upper grades of elementary school.

Pai also criticized that fact that the state mandates a lot of curriculum and programs, yet does not offer the financial assistance to implement them.

“I think, as a board, we need to decide how strongly we take being out of compliance. Over the years, the state has mandated things and made lots of unfunded mandates. And, as we feel, the pressure is clearly on our wallets,” Pai said. “Not that I want to be out of compliance, but I think at some point you have to say to the state ‘back off.’ If you’re not going to give us money, then how could you possibly expect us to do everything you’re asking us to do? And I don’t know that we should be afraid to say that.”

Nevertheless, the board was pleased that world languages had been restored to the elementary schools and also expressed optimism for the fact that the district is currently looking at ways to improve the program.

While Wright was pleased that elementary school world languages program had been restored, she lamented the fact that a full-time high school Latin teaching position will be cut, with Latin instruction for sophomores, juniors and seniors being offered as an online class.

“I’m really saddened with the Latin situation,” Wright said. “Nothing replaces someone standing in front of you teaching.”

And Tuscan Elementary School teacher Barbara Bracey, who read a lengthy statement to the board on behalf of the South Orange-Maplewood Education Association, the teachers union, likewise praised the decision to reinstate the world languages program, which until that day SOMEA believed had not been a priority for the board.

“Up until today, it was our knowledge that continuing the Spanish language program at the elementary school level was being cut,” Bracey said. “The latest word now is it’s not, so we are truly happy to hear the news that the Spanish language program has been reinstated. That’s terrific.”

Despite being glad to see world language restored, Bracey harangued the board for having skewed priorities. As Bracey spoke, approximately 25 teachers, all wearing red, stood in support of her and SOMEA.

“‘We must do more with less’ were the words spoken to all teachers in this district at the beginning of this school year,” Bracey said at the meeting. “It was explained that the district had adopted this policy of ‘do more with less’ because we were on the precipice of a fiscal cliff and so we needed a zero-based budget. The well was drying up. The coffers were empty. Priorities for spending had to be set. We had to cut back. Period.”

Bracey went on to say that, while this makes sense, teachers were not consulted in setting priorities. According to Bracey, until that day, world languages in the elementary schools had not been a priority. The second non-priority, according to Bracey, was the hiring of substitute teachers to cover absent teachers. Bracey pointed out that it costs the school district more money to have full-time teachers pick up the slack than it would to have substitutes, and that it leaves teachers without preparation time for their own classes.

“The policy of ‘more with less’ in this case applies solely to the teachers who are doing more than their own work when the district has not provided substitutes and have so much less time for preparing for our own students,” Bracey said. “Financially speaking, this way of dealing with the substitute issue is a boondoggle.”

The Tuscan teacher also questioned why the district has made programs like “Let’s Talk,” an online platform to encourage and streamline district communication with the community, a priority.

“Let’s talk about Let’s Talk. It appears talk isn’t cheap,” Bracey said. “Do you know that it costs $19,000 for the first year of Let’s Talk? Do we really need to spend any money when emails are free?”

Former South Orange Middle School librarian and district parent Elissa Malespina also criticized Let’s Talk, saying that she and other parents still do not receive timely responses through the system.

Bracey also questioned the wisdom of giving out merit pay when the district is in such dire financial straits, and Malespina asked the board to take a good look at the district and its staff when determining tenure.

“We the SOMEA members are doing more with less,” Bracey said. “That’s what teachers have always been doing and will continue to do. We understand that the district has a budget, but let’s get our priorities in order so that students of this district are really No. 1.”

Malespina also criticized the school district for allegedly not being in compliance with state law regarding IEPs and 504s. According to Malespina, her son was unable to use his approved electronic assistive device during PARCC testing because the school’s technological infrastructure was not robust enough to support it. Board President Elizabeth Baker seemed concerned by this and said Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr. would follow up with Malespina; Baker also encouraged other parents with similar experiences to reach out to Ramos.

Nevertheless, Malespina was pleased to see that the district will be spending some money in the next budget cycle on technological improvements.

“I was happy to see we are going to spend some money on new networks because, they’re not sexy, but we need them,” Malespina said.