WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education voted 4-1 to approve the 2017-18 school year’s final budget, which uses all of the school district’s banked cap on top of raising taxes to the state-mandated 2-percent cap — making for a 4.09-percent overall increase.
The final budget, which only Vice President Irv Schwarzbaum voted against during the board’s May 1 meeting at Liberty Middle School, 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 a way of dealing with a $3.1 million deficit, which Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky said was caused by a combination of rising health care costs, more out-of-district costs and natural increases in salaries. To help offset that, it was decided that the district should use its accumulated $2,185,503 in banked cap in addition to raising taxes by 2 percent, the maximum allowed by the state, 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, 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 usual.
All of these numbers are the same as those featured in the preliminary budget, though the number of staff cuts mentioned was actually higher than previously discussed. While the preliminary budget featured 42 reductions, the final budget contained 57 eliminated positions including 21 full-time and two part-time paraprofessionals, and 17 teachers. Of those 17 teachers, 13 will be reduced from Edison Central Six School. According to Rutzky, Edison has long had small class sizes, so those reductions will allow class sizes to increase to between 18 and 22 students.
But these positions being cut does not mean 57 people will soon be out of jobs. Rutzky said nine staff members — including teachers, administrative assistants and a clerical aid — will be reassigned to other positions within the district that have opened up through retirements or departures. Additionally, he said 17 paraprofessionals will have the chance to interview for positions as they arise, while six teachers will have the opportunity to interview for available positions within the district. And while nothing is guaranteed, the superintendent indicated that those six teachers should not be worried.
“Based on me knowing these six individuals, I believe that they will be hired in the district,” Rutzky said. “I think they are very, very fine teachers.”
Aside from staff cuts, the budget also featured a reduction in five leased buses, which just means five older buses will not be taken out of the fleet this year. All buses are safe though, Rutzky stressed, and the district will likely resume leasing newer buses as it usually does next year.
The final budget also included many additions. Six staff members will be hired, including a kindergarten teacher, biology teacher, principal and a custodian for the new pre-school; and two science, technology, engineering and math teachers. In addition, seven new classes will be introduced such as a seventh-grade STEM program and a K-5 science program.
Beyond that, the additions spanned several technology upgrades, security enhancements and capital improvement projects. Much professional development will be done too, especially in such areas as English, math, science, curriculum development and technology infusion.
In the end, the board was satisfied enough with the budget to vote for it, with Ron Charles commending the staff, administrators and board members for working hard to balance the children’s needs with the taxpayers’ interests. But Schwarzbaum found the budget far from acceptable, instead criticizing a number of aspects that resulted in his voting against it.
For one, Schwarzbaum said he simply cannot ask the taxpayers to fund a 4.09-percent increase in an environment of less than 1-percent inflation. He also questioned why the district is spending a projected $987,500 on health-benefit waivers, stating that it does not make sense to him why employees would be paid to not use the district’s health care plan. BOE business administrator John Calavano answered that it would cost the district more if every staff member took its insurance.
Schwarzbaum also found the notion of cutting 23 paraprofessionals to be misleading when Rutzky said many could be rehired depending on the number of special education students coming into the district next year. He asked whether the possibility of rehiring those employees was factored into the budget; the superintendent answered that it was not. But Rutzky pointed out that the district also does not include potential basic skills or special education teachers in the budget — it is just how the process works.
“We don’t know a lot of things that are going to happen in September,” Rutzky said. “You have to adjust to that and you have to make decisions around what goes on. That’s no different than anything else we do.”
The final issue Schwarzbaum had with the final budget was the same problem that caused him to vote against the preliminary one — the fact that $1.3 million in health care savings was baked into the budget when the district has not yet entered into a contract with the West Orange Education Association. He acknowledged that two major settlements were reached on the subjects of health benefits and salaries, and he said he thinks a final agreement will happen soon. Despite that momentum though, he said the WOEA still has not agreed to a contract and even “walked out” of a negotiation session April 28. As a result, he said it might be premature to assume that $1.3 million will be at the district’s disposal as the July 1 start date for health care plans approaches.
“We’re predicating a budget on (the fact that) we will have an agreement,” Schwarzbaum said. “We will have a contract. The question is when and on what terms.”
Rutzky said the budget will have to be reduced by $1.3 million if a deal is not reached with the union by July 1, with those funds coming out of either salaries or programs. But the superintendent also stressed that he is confident a contract will be reached in the very near future, otherwise he would not have presented the budget to include the savings.
The board vice president was not the only one opposed to the final budget. Resident Adam Kraemer said he does not believe taxpayers are getting the value they should for their money.
“We’re paying more and we’re not necessarily getting more,” Kraemer said. “A lot of taxpayers are really, really irked about this — me included. I really think this budget is not in the interest of the total community.”
Michael Kessel, a private school parent, agreed that the Board of Education needs to change its mindset when it comes to spending. Kessel said the BOE is charging more per pupil than comparable districts and yet West Orange has a lower graduation rate and worse SAT scores. People are not going to continue moving into town if this continues, he said.
“This model of spend and tax is not sustainable,” Kessel said. “You need to bring more value to taxpayers, and overpaying per student is not doing that.”
BOE member Mark Robertson responded that, while SAT scores could be better, the district has countless positive attributes to tout including stellar teachers and an exceptional engineering program. And though Robertson himself said the district cannot continue putting a financial burden on taxpayers, he also pointed out that it has started doing private fund development to correct that.
Additionally, Rutzky said the district always keeps the interests of the taxpayers in mind.
“There’s not a day that goes by that every employee in this district is not thinking about what they could do differently to make things better,” Rutzky said. “We identify what we’re doing well, and then we put a plan in place (to address) what we’re not doing well and what we could do better.”
Photos by Sean Quinn