West Orange School District cuts back on busing to meet budget constraints

The West Orange BOE approved the 2021-2022 budget at its May 3 meeting.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education approved the district’s 2021-2022 school year budget at its May 3 meeting, unanimously voting “yes” to the $177,292,506 budget. There will be a local tax levy of 1.5 percent, bringing in the bulk of the district’s revenue with $143,613,547.

The largest expenditure, taking up 57.58 percent of the total spending in the budget, is for salaries, at $102,072,889. Benefits are the second largest line item; the district will be spending $28,117,379 on benefits for staff. The special education budget, including transportation, is $16,175,235; it is 9.12 percent of the total spending in the budget. Instruction and support will cost $6,510,904; operations, maintenance and security will cost $7,301,259; charter school tuition will cost $266,937; capital outlay will cost $661,709; debt service will cost $6,079,354; and the district will spend $3,366,822 on special revenue.

The general education budget for transportation is $6,740,018, which is lower than in previous years; on May 11, Director of Transportation Elena McFarland sent a letter to district families saying that transportation services “categorized as courtesy and/or hazardous have been removed for the 2021-2022 school year for grades 6-12,” due to budget constraints.

Courtesy and hazardous transportation is not required by the state, and, according to McFarland’s letter, the West Orange School District has been offering a service above the state requirements.

“Transportation for general education students consumes approximately 4 percent of the West Orange Public Schools’ budget,” McFarland wrote. “To ensure our students continue to receive uninterrupted educational services, the decision was made to balance our budget by eliminating the courtesy/hazardous transportation services for students in grades 6-12 within the district. Due to the wording of the statute, there is no process for an appeal.”

In an update letter on May 14 to district families, Superintendent Scott Cascone said the transportation reduction was presented to the public in the proposed budget at the BOE meeting on March 18 and in the final presentation on May 3.

“The letter served as a preliminary advisory; any families and students who will be impacted by this reduction will be advised directly as soon as possible,” Cascone wrote in the letter. “The district is in the process of updating the street directory to ensure that the information that is shared is accurate.”

In a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on May 17, Cascone said the WOSD has bused more than 1,000 students who live closer than the 2-mile radius for kindergarteners through eighth-graders and 2.5-mile radius for high schoolers. It costs about $1.5 million per year.

“We were looking for things that wouldn’t affect programs or staff,” Cascone said about the reduction. “So we either raise taxes or find it elsewhere. There aren’t many places to look at this point other than programs and staff, to be honest.”

Cascone sits on the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board and is starting conversations with town officials on identifying places to possibly add more crossing guards along large streets, such as Pleasant Valley Way, for students who will have to walk to school next year. The town pays crossing guards, but the district can explore a shared service agreement.

“Obviously paying for more crossing guards would be less expensive than busing,” Cascone said.

The May 3 final budget presentation also said middle school and high school late bus runs would be reduced.

Salaries and benefits were the major increases in the spending in the 2021-2022 budget; the total increase that will be seen will cost $8,048,265. In addition to the busing, there will be a 20-percent reduction in instructional supplies spending and a 10-percent reduction in noninstructional supplies spending. Only six staff positions will be eliminated, down from the originally proposed 28.

“We went back into the budget, and it wasn’t easy to do that, but we found a way to get it done,” Cascone said at the May 3 meeting about the staff cuts. “We had some additional retirements in the last several weeks, which helped with breakage.”

But there will also be 10 added positions in the next school year: a director of assessment, accountability and intervention; an occupational therapist; a behavioral disabilities program teacher at the middle school level; an autism program teacher; a learning and language disabilities kindergarten teacher at Kelly Elementary School; a fifth-grade teacher at Hazel Elementary School; two interventionists for Edison Middle School and Liberty Middle School; a special education resource room teacher; and a part-time technology technician who became full time.

Capital projects included in the budget are repairing the structural wall at Gregory Elementary School, replacing the kitchen roof at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, replacing the cafeteria roof at West Orange High School and replacing the roof of the media center at Edison.