SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Following the Feb. 22 Board of Education meeting in which the business administrator announced proposed cuts to the school district and a tax increase, the public schools budget has remained a heated topic of discussion, bringing out a crowd to the March 2 Board of Education budget workshop.
Superintendent John Ramos Jr. boiled the budgetary struggle down to one question on March 2: “How do we deliver a 21st-century education in a fiscally hemorrhaging environment?”
Ramos said the South Orange-Maplewood School District — in addition to every other public school district — is facing this fiscal cliff due to the 2-percent cap mandated on tax increases, a stressed tax base, inadequate state funding and constantly increasing costs.
“In the case of South Orange-Maplewood, you have in fact been experiencing this critical point for a couple of years now, but you’ve had some opportunities for efficiencies within the system that were perhaps less painful to achieve than others. We have now reached what I would call clearly a fiscal cliff here in South Orange-Maplewood,” Ramos said.
According to business Administrator Cheryl Schneider, the South Orange-Maplewood School District is facing a budget shortfall of approximately $3.5 million for the 2016-2017 school year — and will face an even larger one of approximately $20 million by the 2020-2021 school year.
Ramos cautioned that while the 2020-2021 school year may seem distant, it’s “when our current eighth-graders are ready to graduate high school, so it’s not like it is a million miles away.”
As previously reported, with revenue sources such as local taxes, state and federal aid and programs, debt service, tuition, fund balance, and capital reserve, Schneider said the proposed revenue amount for the 2016-2017 school year is $125,331,301, which is $1,736,521 more than this school year’s. Of this amount, 94 percent is expected to come from local taxes, which includes operating budget and debt service, with only 3.4 percent coming from state aid, 2.4 percent coming from federal and state programs, and 0.2 percent each coming from debt service aid and miscellaneous revenue sources, such as tuition.
Under state law, local taxes cannot increase more than 2 percent for the operating budget. This of course leaves the oft-used loophole that it can exceed the 2-percent cap for other areas of the budget.
At a 2-percent operating budget, the tax levy cap would be $111,317,574, but with the added debt service of $3,844,298, that percentage bumps up to 2.06, according to Schneider on March 2. At this estimate, based on 2015 figures, the average Maplewood household would pay approximately $165 more per year in taxes, while the average South Orange household would pay approximately $216 more, though Schneider explained in February that these numbers would likely equalize after the appeals process.
The school district also has banked cap it can use, though Ramos said March 2 that using the banked cap would be a “painful option” for the district, as it would add to the operating budget — an addition that would likely need to be maintained the following year without that banked cap on which to rely. There is $409,103 of banked cap from the 2013-2014 school year that, if not used this year, will disappear. If the school district uses the banked cap, the operating and debt service tax impact increases to 2.44 percent, raising taxes for the average Maplewood household by $180 and South Orange household by $234 before appeals.
According to Schneider, the SOMSD has been containing costs by increasing faculty contributions to health insurance; establishing special education programs, such as the Montrose Early Childhood Center, in district, which prevents more out-of-district placements and which Schneider said posted more than $1 million in savings this year; sharing services with South Orange and Maplewood; instituting energy conservation measures, such capital improvements like the new windows at Clinton Elementary School and Maplewood Middle School, and ongoing work to decrease energy costs, which have been going down overall in recent years, despite a small bump in the past two years due to the arctic temperatures; taking advantage of cooperative purchasing with other districts and consortiums; purchasing through a bidding process, which allows for competition; purchasing contracted services, though the district did hire three tech trainers this school year as it was discovered that it would be cheaper to add them to district personnel than to contract those services; obtaining grants, such as the PEP grant; using in-house transportation services; and renting out facilities, which doesn’t bring in much money but is revisited each year.
Increasing district enrollment projections are driving increases in the school district’s operating budget, with rising enrollment affecting staff and supply needs. According to Schneider’s presentation at the March 2 workshop, next school year the district is expecting to serve 6,939 students — 59 more than this school year. Enrollment data shows that, in just the past 10 years, the school district has seen an enrollment increase of more than 800 students.
The budget is also forced to increase to accommodate special education needs; these increases are mostly due to increased referrals and out-of-district placements. Referrals cost money as an expert must be brought in to evaluate the child; the school district must pay tuition for children sent to schools out of district. Special education is expected to account for 26.4 percent of next school year’s budget, as opposed to 25.1 percent in the current school year. Schneider explained that this school year 18 percent of enrolled students are out-of-district while only 14.94 percent were out-of district in the 2010-2011 school year.
Ramos added that the school district is currently looking into the elementary feeder patterns to the middle schools and is considering hiring a consultant to look into redistricting to soften the strains being caused by increased enrollment at some schools, but not others.
At the March 2 meeting, Schneider told the board that a redistricting consultant will likely cost anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000.
As enrollment and operating costs are increasing more quickly than revenue, cuts need to be made. Current suggestions for cuts include not purchasing new supplies where possible, not buying any new technology, cutting back on memberships to various organizations, tightening procedures and looking at scheduling efficiencies.
Schneider also announced that cuts will be made to the professional development budget. Rather than sacrifice quality, the district is looking to capitalize on professionals who are local, which cuts travel costs. Schneider also pointed out that the district will be taking advantage of free professional development provided by the state.
According to Schneider’s presentation, the school district added 11.8 full-time educators, or FTEs, to its 2015-2016 budget that it had not planned to add. Some of these additions resulted from enrollment increases, program adjustments and the three new in-house tech trainers.
While Schneider had announced in February that the district was looking to cut 20 FTEs, that number was downgraded to 19 — 10 fewer classroom teachers and 10 fewer supervisors, administrators, and media and technology specialists — at the March 2 meeting. Schneider said that most of these reductions will be the result of structural changes to supervision, high school administration and support, academic support, and media and technology programming.
“Reductions will be obtained through attrition and remaining supervisor responsibilities will be covered (by) current staff,” Schneider wrote in her March 2 presentation.
The district is looking to phase out the English/language arts supervisor for kindergarten through eighth-grade and the math supervisor for grades nine through 12. The responsibilities of the phased out supervisor positions will next school year be handled by various other supervisors within the district.
“Are you sure the other supervisors will be able to handle the additional responsibilities of that job?” alternative student representative to the board Filip Saulean asked.
Ramos answered that the supervisors would undoubtedly be busy, which was “a downside,” but that the district would keep an eye on the supervisors to make sure everything proceeds smoothly. He added that, while some supervisors teach classes now, they may not be able to do that next year.
At the high school, the district plans to reduce the number of guidance counselors from 11 to 10, and to reduce the numbers of deans from two to one. Disciplinary work will instead mostly be handled by the assistant principals for grades 10 through 12, while the remaining dean will work primarily with students in grade nine. In light of these changes, the dean support staff will be reduced from three to one.
Schneider also explained that one of the two media specialists at the middle school level will be let go; next school year, just one will cover both middle schools’ libraries.
All in all, the elementary schools will see a personnel reduction of one person, the middle schools two people, the high school 14 people and non-school-affiliated district personnel will see a reduction of two people. The banked cap could potentially save four FTEs.
A chart in the presentation showed that, while enrollment continues to rise steeply, employee figures have stayed mostly flat, never deviating beyond a change of seven staff members.
Ramos also explained that the district would take a look at existing but underutilized curricular and extracurricular activities, saying, “That’s just something we have to look at in this cliff.”
“In the face of growing needs, which we all are pretty clear about, this budget calls for us again to do more with less,” Ramos said. “Obviously when we have a shortfall of this magnitude — approximately $3 million — something has to give. And there will invariably be community angst no matter what we cut.”
Since Feb. 22, three petitions have been created on Change.org opposing some of the proposed cuts. The first, “Cut Costs Don’t Cut SOMSD Teachers,” already had 136 votes as of press time March 8 and the second, “Save the SOMSD School Libraries,” which opposes cutting librarians and media specialists, already had 693 votes.
The third petition, “Save the Columbia High School Swimming Pool,” had already garnered 1,839 votes as of press time. At the end of this school year, the school district had been planning to close the CHS pool and repurpose the space, though the board discussed March 2 possibly keeping it open for another year or two.
Also, 2014 CHS graduate and former swim captain David Cutler has started a page on Generosity.com, a crowd-funding website, to save the pool. As of press time, the campaign had raised $1,155 from 14 contributors.
On Nov. 18, 2013, the BOE had voted unanimously not to build a new pool to replace the current one, which is in dire need of repairs. A new pool would have cost approximately $8.1 million and the board decided that, in light of the looming fiscal cliff, a new pool was not a feasible option.
On March 2, however, board member Elizabeth Daugherty, who was board president during the pool vote in 2013, said that the Finance, Facilities and Technology Committee would consider keeping the pool open for a bit longer provided there are no health risks associated with it.
“We know how important the swim program is and the idea of using it another year or two,” Daugherty said. “It’s a matter of how much money we have to put into it. If we can and it makes financial sense, we will.”