SOMA Board of Education passes $152.4M district budget

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education unanimously passed the district’s 2020–2021 budget at its virtual meeting on May 4, moving forward with planning for the next school year. The local tax levy will be raised by 2 percent with the passage of the $152,419,950 budget.

Taxes make up the bulk of the district’s revenue, with $123,334,105 coming from local taxpayers. In Maplewood, the estimated average increase per household is $256, while in South Orange the estimated average increase is $271.

South Orange–Maplewood will receive $7,482,938 in state aid. But the COVID-19 pandemic could potentially change that number, according to Superintendent Ronald Taylor.

“The governor is going to give us an update on that in the next two weeks,” Taylor said at the meeting. “The state will be giving guidance if our state aid is impacted by the pandemic.”

BOE member Robin Baker asked if the amount of state aid the district will be receiving would affect the tax levy in the future.

“If we’re impacted by that, it means a lot of other districts in the state are as well,” Taylor said. “In 2009 and 2010 there were lots of changes made with state aid, including districts going into reserves, so we have experience with changes like this. The last thing we want to touch are people and programs that are positively impacting our students. We are keeping our ears to the ground about what to expect. We’ve also done due diligence with our collective bargaining units and alerted them that we don’t want to make cuts. But we’ve had no guidance yet.”

Other revenue sources include tuition from out of district students at $275,000; federal aid at $1,904,071; audited fund balance at $3,453,594; debt service aid at $1,005,009; and debt service levy at $5,373,761.

The budget presentation described the goals of the 2020–2021 budget. The district administration told the BOE that, as a district, they have been able to systematically stop layoffs while also increasing the amount of services provided in the schools.

“We know that this intrinsically provides for greater accountability and consistency,” the presentation stated. “We also know that similar to most districts in the state of New Jersey we have limited resources — year over year — due to negotiated increases in personnel and related costs that cannot be mitigated — mandates. Our goal for the 2020–2021 budget is to be thoughtful and intentional with the funds that are not mandatorily assigned. As has been our tenet, we will make recommendations that are data driven, research based and student centered.”

Also included in the budget is $50,000 for access and equity programming. The funding is recommended for circumstances in which students must pay a fee to participate in school-related programs, such as field trips, athletics, school plays and school dances. Parent fundraising groups have in the past paid for such activities; South Orange Middle School and Columbia High School parent fundraising has spent the most on these activities, paying $12,000 and $11,500 respectively.

“These funds are outside of this focus on the mandate set forth in board policy and provide funds for school-related programs and activities that have a fee associated with them as a prerequisite to participation, so that economically disadvantaged students will have access to such programs and activities,” the presentation stated.

Elsewhere in the appropriations portion of the budget, the district will be spending $83,941,319 on salaries and contract services. Health benefits will cost $14,679,000 and the district will be paying $6,967,083 for transportation. Tuition costs for the SOMSD to send students out-of-district as needed is $14,982,280. The line items for special services, technology, curriculum, maintenance and operation, utilities and central administration were combined into one line item in the presentation; it will cost $19,828,352.

Included in the budget is a redesign of the central office.

“Equity and access, HIB, affirmative action, intentional integration, and consistency of school operation expectations are high priorities of need for our district,” the presentation stated. “Secondary educational needs such as innovative scheduling, mental health supports for anxiety, post-secondary partnership, etc., are significantly different from the granular needs of our elementary schools. While data management and interpretation are a very high priority, incorporating it with our curriculum works makes the data a ‘living/breathing’ relative part of our work.”

As a result, the administration suggested hiring an assistant superintendent of equity, access and school operations; a director of secondary education; and a human relations director. Under that structure, there would be three assistant superintendents: one of equity, access and school operations; one of curriculum and instruction; and one of special services.

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