BOE may raise tax levy by 1.67 percent

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
Board of Education member Sandra Mordecai, center, discusses the 2018-2019 school year budget at the April 9 BOE meeting. With her are BOE President Ron Charles, left, and BOE member Ken Alper.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education unanimously passed the 2018-2019 preliminary budget at its special meeting on Monday, April 9, at Liberty Middle School, after receiving an extension from the county to submit the budget for approval. The previous county deadline was March 29.

The preliminary operating budget is a total of $149,186,427. Salaries make up 63 percent of the operating costs of the district at $94,315,752. Benefits and special education services combined take up approximately 24 percent of the budget, with benefits costing the district $24,439,256 and special services costing $12,116,317.

The district anticipates receiving $158,371,470 in revenue during the year, with 89.12 percent of that coming from local taxes. It will receive $10,705,584 in state aid; $3,100,691 in federal and state restricted aid; $2,500,000 in budgeted fund balance; and $912,195 in tuition and miscellaneous revenue.

According to West Orange Board of Education Business Administrator John Calavano, transportation for special education is included in the special services portion of the budget. There is $6,065,844 dedicated to transportation for regular education. Operations, maintenance and security make up just under 4 percent of the budget, with $5,918,842 being spent during the year. The district will spend slightly less on instruction and support, with $5,912,792 set aside. Capital outlay takes up $280,196 of the budget, while students who attend charter schools outside West Orange will receive $137,428 from the district.

The total tax levy increase for the 2018-2019 budget is 1.67 percent, which is below the state-mandated tax cap of 2 percent. The additional $1,531,011 that the district could be raising through taxes will become banked cap, available to the district for the next three years. The average homeowner, based on assessed property values, will pay an additional $224.29 annually in school taxes.

“We’re actually under the cap and this goes into the bank to use over the next three years,” Calavano said.

The district built in some additions to the budget for the next year, and most notably will be conducting a safety and security audit. An outside company will evaluate each school building and tell the district how to better protect students and staff.

“They’ll tell us if we have any soft spots in our security,” Superintendent Jeffrey Rutzky said at the meeting. “They’ll evaluate the inside and outside (of the buildings) and do traffic reports. We will also be upgrading doors so that staff has cards that will open them; those who are not employees have to go to the front door and prove who they are.”

Ten new teachers will also be hired for the 2018-2019 school year: one for general education at the elementary school level, seven special education teachers across the district, one gifted and talented teacher at the elementary level, and one SAT prep teacher at the high school.

New programs built into the budget include a behavioral disabilities program. According to Rutzky, one intended benefit of this new program is that West Orange students currently receiving similar programming outside the district will be able to return to WOSD schools.

“We do not have this in the district and we can be cost effective and educate students in their district,” he said.

A summer school program will also be implemented, as well as the addition of two new buses and 350 new Chromebooks for students to use. The high school will see new sports teams available; boys’ volleyball will now be an option, as well as fencing for both boys and girls.

Rutzky also addressed possible cuts to the teaching staff; the budget accounts for eight teachers districtwide being laid off, as well as three paraprofessionals. According to Rutzky, these reductions are not set in stone, but are being kept as a possibility, should the need arise and based on class size adjustments.

“We look at the number of students and determine the number of teachers we need,” the superintendent said. “We will adjust if we need to. It’s only April now and September is a long time from now. This is a living document, so we work through that from April to September.”

BOE member Sandra Mordecai asked about the maintenance projects planned for the district, which include upgrading the intercom system at Hazel Elementary School, asphalt and concrete repairs across the district, asbestos removal across the district and window-shade replacements at West Orange High School. Mordecai wanted to look into replacing windows in all schools, particularly on the lower levels.

Rutzky said that the district’s director of buildings and grounds, Robert Csigi, is currently compiling a list of projects that could benefit each school building.

“He’s preparing that, and that’s something that we’re looking into and trying to find out what it would cost the district,” Rutzky said.

Board Vice President Mark Robertson said he wanted to look into holding a cybersecurity audit as well as a safety and security audit, but also said he is pleased with the addition of the summer school program.

“I’m ecstatic because we’ve talked about this for some time,” Robertson said at the meeting. “This really ties into student achievement and can help our graduation rates. It can be a source of revenue (from out-of-district students) because we know people are going to Bloomfield or paying for Newark Academy and this could be a source of revenue for us.”

BOE member Irv Schwarzbaum said that he was happy the district was able to stay below the 2-percent tax cap.

“I’m pleased that we were able to come up with a budget that stayed at 1.7 percent — it’s much improved from the past, when it was at 4.5 percent,” Schwarzbaum said at the meeting. “Our goal is to minimize the tax levy and not cut any staff and we achieved that this year, which is commendable.”