WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education unanimously approved the proposed 2016-2017 school year’s preliminary budget, which includes increasing taxes by 1.86 percent while also cutting 20 positions and two middle-school classes to make up for an approximately $3 million deficit, during its March 21 meeting.
According to the budget presentation made by Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky and district business administrator John Calavano, the tax levy for the general fund will be increased to $128,852,883 — the highest amount to which the district could increase it — from last year’s $126,326,356. But, thanks to the $910,000 the district received in state aid plus the $209,000 it has saved so far by refinancing, the tax levy for the debt service will actually be decreased to $5,001,495 as compared to last year’s $5,084,539. That means the overall tax levy will be $133,854,378, which is a 1.86-percent increase from last year’s $131,410,895.
Considering that the average assessed value of a house in West Orange is $338,302, the average homeowner will pay $124.04 more annually than last year.
But as Rutzky pointed out, even increasing the operating budget to raise taxes to the state-mandated 2-percent cap was not enough to make up for the deficit largely brought about by an increase in health-insurance costs. As a result, multiple positions, including one in-house counsel, one dean of students, two general teachers and six assistant coaches, will have to be let go. Board of Education President Laura Lab said those staff reductions will save the district $750,000.
Along with that, a seventh-grade reading class and an eighth-grade Italian class will be cut. Rutzky explained that the latter course was chosen due to declining numbers of students both at the middle school and high school levels taking Italian.
Still, the superintendent stressed that no one was pleased to eliminate anything.
“The board in no way, shape or form ever wants to have to make cuts to staff and programming, but when they’re faced with a $3 million deficit — which includes going to a 2-percent cap — there are very difficult decisions that have to be made,” Rutzky said, explaining that the district started with cutting what would least impact students and worked its way down from there. “It is always the hardest thing to do because you’re talking about people’s careers and their lives. And nobody ever wants to affect someone in that way.”
The budget does not only include reductions, though. It also provides for the addition of six new classes at the high school, including introduction to journalism, the world of Wall Street, elements of dance, marketing and advertising applications, newspaper I, and literary study of rock and hip hop. It also adds one full-time dance teacher, 1.2 basic skills teachers, the Wilson Fundations Phonics Program for K-2 and the Orton-Gillingham Program for K-12.
As Buildings and Grounds Director Robert Csigi discussed, the budget will support several districtwide capital improvement projects as well. These include a few structural upgrades at the administration building and bus garage, the replacement of the Tarnoff gym’s air conditioning coils, the continuing improvement of all school sidewalks and pavement, and the addition of a dance studio at the high school. Csigi said the budget will also cover various Energy Savings Improvement Program projects, such as the changing all school lighting to energy-effective LED lights.
“That will give us better light, and it’s a tremendous energy conservation project,” Csigi said.
Additionally, the budget will enhance the district’s technology through leasing 2,100 Chromebooks for students in grades three through six, providing five computers for each K-2 classroom, supplying every pre-K-5 teacher with a laptop and adding 50 iPads for students districtwide.
And the budget will add security cameras or upgrade obsolete ones at all elementary, middle and high schools, which Rutzky said is always a priority for the district.
“Safety and security — I’m not sure there’s anything more important,” Rutzky said.
At the same time, the budget will also maintain similar class sizes to last year’s while continuing professional development across multiple areas spanning technology infusion to the adjustment to the new K-2 Common Core standards.
In the end, Rutzky praised school administrators for working diligently to prioritize and create a cost-effective, zero-based budget. He also lauded the board for being able to make difficult decisions to compensate for the deficit yet still provide quality services for students. When the board has to respond to large health insurance increases or the increased cost of out-of-district placement for children with special needs — for which the district must pay tuition, which has a tax cap of 10 percent, instead of a regular school’s 2 percent — he said budgeting is never easy.
Even though they accomplished it again this year, the board members were not celebratory. They, too, expressed frustration over having to deal with a 10-percent cap when sending children out-of-district to schools with the necessary special-needs programming, which can also bill the district upward of three years later. Lab also pointed out that West Orange schools would be receiving an additional $2.5 million from the state if its school funding formula were fully funded; instead, she said they are “underfunded drastically” while now-wealthy school districts such as Jersey City and Hoboken are receiving additional funds of “astronomical” amounts because they were labeled as one of the 31 economically distressed Abbott districts years ago.
While Assemblyman John McKeon and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey have recently proposed a bill to help districts in West Orange’s position, the board members still have to make cuts right now. And, as Lab stressed, they were not pleased to do so — especially when it came to letting employees go.
“We do not take the 20 positions this evening that we’re discussing lightly,” Lab said.
The budget process is not over yet, either. Lab said the board was just informed that health insurance costs are actually rising by 13 percent instead of the 10 percent it had been estimating — an increase of $600,000, according to Rutzky. Lab said Calavano is shopping around, but the board will make adjustments to the budget to reflect that increase if need be.
Now that the preliminary budget has been passed by the board, it will next be presented to the county, which should approve it before April 25. The board will then hold a public hearing to adopt the final budget on April 25.
Meanwhile, residents can visit the district’s website to view a user-friendly budget and use a tax calculator to see how much they will have to pay based on their own property values.
Photos by Sean Quinn