District presents budget to BOE

Preliminary budget to raise taxes by $151 per year for average homeowner

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez and Business Administrator John Calavano presented the West Orange School District’s 2019-2020 preliminary budget to the West Orange Board of Education at its March 25 meeting, sharing the budget before submitting it to the county for approval on March 26. The district’s total operating budget for the year will be $166,018,771, with the biggest percentages being dedicated to salaries and benefits.

According to the presentation, $97,052,173 will be spent on salaries, which is 58.46 percent of the budget, and $25,629,328 is dedicated to benefits, 15.44 percent of the budget. Special services will take up 7.44 percent of the budget with $12,348,404, and instruction and support will take up 4.48 percent with $7,438,311. The district will spend $6,961,943 on operations, maintenance and security, and $6,484,845 on general education transportation.

Other expenses in the budget include $158,445 in charter school tuition, $585,975 in capital outlay, $3,275,945 in special revenue and $6,083,402 in debt service. The local tax levy that the district will be taking in, including for debt service, is $143,860,265. The increase per homeowner per year is $151.82, an increase of $12.65 per month.

This year’s tax increase percentage is complicated, as the school district received $3 million in state funding in the 2018-2019 budget, which the BOE chose to give back to taxpayers. Using the original 2018-2019 tax levy figure, the 2019-2020 tax levy is an increase of 2 percent, which is the state cap; however, when you use the revised 2018-2019 tax levy figure, after the $3 million was deducted, the 2019-2020 tax levy comes to an increase of 4.31 percent.

The district’s budget priorities include curriculum development, health education, staff professional development, water quality, air quality, and facilities and maintenance. The transportation category also includes geomapping devices that can track the location of each bus and Zpasses for instant identification of students on the bus.

“At the elementary level, we do not currently offer health,” de Mendez said about the addition of health education. “A lot of our concerns about social, emotional, nutrition and healthy students in our schools fall under health education so we’ve added health to elementary education.”

BOE member Mark Robertson asked what the money set aside for health education would pay for, and de Mendez said much of it would go toward teacher training.

“A lot of it is educational, a lot of it is professional development and training, and resource materials and partnerships with our community,” she said. “If what our students and families need extends beyond what the public school can give, the conversation doesn’t end with a period. It says ‘Here are the partnerships that we have and here are the community links that can help you.’”

Additions to the budget will include one special education teacher, one occupational speech therapist, two elementary school ESL teachers and three middle school academic support teachers.

The district will reduce staff by eight full-time employees due to projected enrollment and six retirements. Out-of-district professional development will also be reduced. The 7 p.m. late bus at West Orange High School will be eliminated in favor of three late bus runs at 3:45, 5:30 and 6:45 p.m. Another decrease in the budget is substitutes, which comes from the decrease in out-of-district professional development.

“We spend an extraordinary amount on substitutes for coverage for professional development, so we need to be able to budget that appropriately,” de Mendez said. “We need to go out-of-district less and consider the times we require substitutes for professional development.”

Capital projects not included in the budget are Univent repairs, a retaining wall at Washington Elementary School and water quality recommendations. Calavano said the district would have to issue a bond to pay for them.

“The Essex County Improvement Authority has a program where we may be able to have them help us bond for these Univent repairs,” he said at the meeting. “This is an item that should not be in the budget for a one-year hit, it really needs to be spread over a 20-year period. We have to wait until the water recommendations come in and if we have any room within the budget to do the retaining wall we will.”

BOE member Cheryl Merklinger said the budget is still in the preliminary stages and could change before the board votes on the final version.

“Our duty is to ensure our students are educated and that they’re safe,” she said. “We also have a duty to our taxpayers as well as to our employees and faculty in ensuring our decisions are fair and responsible to everyone.”

The county will likely approve the budget before April 22, and the BOE is set to adopt the final budget at a public hearing and meeting on May 6.