SOMA BOE passes budget with 3.2-percent tax increase

The South Orange–Maplewood School District approved the 2021-22 budget at its May 3 meeting.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education passed the 2021-22 budget, which came in at $159,683,232, at its May 3 meeting. The measure passed with a vote of 5-3; BOE members Elissa Malespina, Johanna Wright and Kamal Zubieta voted against it. BOE member Susan Bergin was absent. There will be a 3.2-percent tax levy on residents of South Orange and Maplewood.

During a presentation of the budget at the board’s March 15 meeting, business administrator Paul Roth announced that SOMSD would receive more state aid in 2021-22 than it had received for the 2020-21 school year; the SOMSD will get $7,204,759 in state funding, a 22.51-percent increase from last year. The state is also going to provide $6,886,942 for the Montrose Early Childhood Center, a 25.19-percent increase from last year’s $5,501,260. Debt service aid funding from the state will nearly double, with the district receiving $1,803,663; the 2020-21 amount was $1,005,009.

“Just that one piece alone, the extra $800,000 in debt service aid, resulted in a little over a half a percent tax impact reduction for school taxes,” Roth said at the March 15 meeting. “It’s all very good news; we didn’t have to cut budgets as a result of reduced state aid.”

The bulk of the budget’s spending will be on salaries and contract services at $86,549,620. Tuition for out-of-district placements will cost $19,490,308; benefits will cost $15,205,109. The third-highest line item in the budget is a combination of special services, technology, curriculum, maintenance and operation, utilities, central administration, and custodial supplies for $13,723,684.

SOMSD will spend $9,311,827 on debt service. Transportation will cost the district $8,430,345, a 22.6-percent increase from the 2020-21 transportation budget of $6,877,083. The two smallest line items in the budget are other benefits and departmental costs, which will cost $3,561,329 and $3,411,010, respectively.

According to Roth, the additional state aid SOMSD will receive will be applied to student services for summer programs, student supports, mentoring and tutoring, and access and equity supports. All existing staffing positions will be maintained, and funding will be restored to contract service areas such as paraprofessionals and lunch monitors. The custodial supervisor position will be converted to a facility director position. There will be deep cleaning once a week; additional cleaning will be funded through grants.

“If you remember during this year, we’ve been on a half-day hybrid schedule,” Roth said at the March 15 meeting. “There was a reduction in services where it wasn’t needed to pay for other things.”

There will also be a reduction in the amount of substitutes by 20 people next year.

“To deal with employee coverages, the district temporarily had additional 20 permanent subs,” Roth said. “We’re anticipating in September that we’ll be operating in a more normal capacity and not need those positions.”

The transportation budget will increase because of the coming redistricting of the elementary schools, added transportation for remote preschool students, and reevaluating all of the district bus routes to match the redistricting. Driver and aid assignments will change to match redistricting. In addition, two transportation positions will be added: an assistant transportation supervisor and a transportation dispatcher.

“Since we won’t know exactly what the expenses will look like until later in the year when transportation routes are created and rebid out and restructured to match the redistricting program, we were a little conservative to make sure there is enough money to cover it,” Roth said. “The budget was put together to be a little flexible, so we can handle some of the unknowns that are coming down the road.”

The bulk of the district’s revenue comes from the local tax levy at 87 percent. State aid makes up 10 percent of the revenue; the last 3 percent comes from miscellaneous revenue, debt service aid and federal aid.

“The state came through with additional aid for us, even in a year where the state’s finances were hit and with all the things that COVID did not just to the state but to the national economy,” BOE President Thair Joshua said at the May 3 meeting. “We’re in a situation where we don’t have to cut. I think the budget in front us in terms of the overall expenditures is very thoughtful. I’m grateful that we’re in a position where we’re not being forced to cut positions going forward.”