Proposed school taxes to increase by 2.34 percent

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education discussed its preliminary budget for the 2018-2019 school year at its Feb. 20 meeting and released a timeline for its approval. The total budget for next year is estimated to be $137,374,530, which is a 1.51-percent increase from the current 2017-2018 school year.

As has been a trend for many years now, the district is facing a fiscal cliff. According to the district’s business administrator, Paul Roth, the district had been looking at a $4.8 million gap in its 2018-2019 budget, but has managed to close that gap through spending freezes and other methods.

With the proposed budget, the district is looking to raise $122,289,697 in taxes, a tax impact of 2.34 percent.

“The first big thing is that staffing is projected to remain flat,” Roth said at the meeting. “There are no layoffs; we’re not cutting programs back. So everything is the same for next year, with some differences aligned with district goals.” For example, money from the curriculum and technology budget is being reallocated to support the math and science initiative in the district.

According to Roth, the biggest change in the budget is a $4.7 million increase in salaries and contract services.

“That’s a combination of an increase in salary and additional staff that was added this year, as well as the cost of index that we’re anticipating in some services. Health benefits will be going up approximately 15 percent,” Roth said. “However, we’re still on a split year, meaning we don’t feel that increase until six months into the budget. There’s an $847,000 difference.”

Tuition for non-SOMA students will also be rising by 8 percent, mainly because the district is seeing a decrease in enrollment from students from outside the district.

“One of the strategies put in place was to start plugging in holes to help retain our students,” Roth said. “This is our first snapshot that shows that that strategy appears to have started working.”

More money will also be spent on transportation, bringing the total to $6,038,480; the total transportation cost for the 2017-2018 school year was $5,729,206.

There are drops in spending in next year’s budget as well, including a proposed $30,800 decrease in spending in benefits not including health benefits. According to Roth, reserve accounts will be paying for those benefits.

“We’ve squirreled away $1 million in main accounts since June 30, and what we can do is apply that to the following school year, so we’re using our reserve account for that,” he said.”

Roth also cited this year’s spending freeze as one example of how the district has saved money. Since January, there has been a temporary hold on non-critical facility upgrades and purchasing extra supplies. He also said that the district is trying to auction old equipment off to generate revenue that will be added to the budget.

“We continue to leverage shared services with the towns as much as we can,” Roth said. “Presuming we can pull that off, our budget is $137,374,530 with an estimated 2.34 (percent) estimated tax impact.”

BOE second Vice President Annemarie Maini asked Roth about the $2 million that is rolled over in the budget from year to year.

“There’s the excess fund balance, which is $2.3 million, and typically that skips a year,” Roth said. “We had $2.3 million of excess fund balance as of June 30 that is actually being applied to the 2018-2019 budget. It was at the end of last school year, skips this year and gets applied as tax relief to our 2018-2019 budget.”

Roth said this happens because it helps to manage the budget and avoid having to make deep cuts if the district no longer has that $2.3 million dollars.

“I’m still planning to keep that audited fund balance flat from year to year,” he said. “Because if we let that dip really fast, then in two years you’re $2 million short and we have to do a massive cut.”

BOE President Elizabeth Baker told members of the community at the meeting that the board is working with the towns, specifically village President Sheena Collum and Mayor Vic DeLuca, to obtain state funding.

“I would like to share some of the advocacy work we’ve been doing with respect to state aid and with the help of the mayors getting some attention at the state level with the mounting health benefits cost,” Baker said at the meeting. “Sheena Collum and Vic DeLuca were able to be at a recent roundtable with the governor talking not only about state aid, but the reform at the state level that we need to do on health benefits.”

Budget workshops will take place March 7 and 10 before the state aid notices are sent out March 15. At the March 19 BOE meeting, the board will approve the preliminary budget for submission to the county the following day. April 30 has tentatively been set as the date for a public hearing and action to levy the school tax.