MAPLEWOOD/SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — It is never too early for budget discussions. At its Nov. 16 meeting, the Board of Education heard from business Administrator Cheryl Schneider, who delivered her annual baseline data budget report.
Several variables — such as enrollment, caring for facilities, transportation, socioeconomic makeup, and salaries and benefits — factor into deciding a school district budget, as they also affect state aid. Schneider reported that in the coming years, the district may need to redistrict some schools to address enrollment changes and also take a closer look at how it uses fund balance and debt service.
According to Schneider, although the overall enrollment numbers stayed flat during the past school year, there were some significant increases at the elementary school level.
“Enrollment is an important element of budget development,” Schneider wrote in her report. “It is used to determine appropriate amounts to budget in several areas including staffing, levels, facility needs, equipment, textbooks, supplies and materials.” The New Jersey Department of Education also uses enrollment figures in the state aid formula.
Schneider informed the board that, since 2007, overall enrollment has increased by 13 percent, approximately 780 students. While a large jump in overall numbers was not seen this school year, kindergarten enrollment has substantially exceeded the district’s projections for the past three years, which has resulted in a high enrollment at the elementary school level. On the other hand, the district has seen enrollment decreases at the middle and high schools, especially in the seventh and ninth grades.
“The continued growth at the elementary levels, with significantly larger than anticipated numbers at the kindergarten level now three years in a row, continue to raise questions about elementary facility needs and questions regarding the need for redistricting, both at the elementary and middle school levels,” Schneider said.
According to the business administrator, the increased elementary school enrollment means the middle schools will be seeing more students in a few years. Similarly, although the current 11th and 12th grade classes are the smallest grades in the district right now, those numbers will burgeon in coming years, too.
Board member Elizabeth Baker questioned whether families opting to go out-of-district to private schools are given an “exit interview” to learn the reason. Schneider said that the district does not do this, but does keep track of where the students are going.
“I hear about a lot of students whose parents don’t feel their (students’) educational needs are being met,” Baker said at the meeting. “I’d like to look to see what drives out-of-district placement, to see why they’re leaving and what we can do to retain them.”
Schneider also said the district has seen a small decrease in out-of-district placements for special-needs students, dropping from 2.5 percent in the last school year to 2.3 percent this school year; Schneider attributes this drop partially to better intervention in the grammar schools and the programming at Montrose.
In its state aid formula, the NJDOE also factors how many students in a district are eligible for free or reduced lunches. According to Schneider’s report, the overall district number has fallen, with 20 percent now being eligible, but that number has also spiked at Seth Boyden, with 46 percent of the school’s students being eligible.
Each year the townships must face the fact that the necessary expenditure on salaries and benefits continue to rise as the cost of living rises.
As for benefits, the district recently switched to Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield from the State Health Benefits Plan, but the numbers are still quite high.
With regard to salaries, earlier this month the BOE and the South Orange Maplewood Education Association, the teachers’ union, ratified an agreement covering the current and the next school years, expiring June 30, 2017.
“The salary increase for the current school year, unknown during the last budget development, was 2.5 percent for certificated staff and 1.8 percent for non-certificated staff,” Schneider wrote. “The increases for 2016-2017 are an additional 2.5 percent for certificated staff and 1.8 percent for non-certificated staff. In addition, increases were made to stipend amounts and to support staff classifications that will further increase the overall salaries in the budget.”
Lastly, Schneider said that the district’s facilities are quite old and that it takes money to maintain them.
“The aging school facilities require major investments of resources,” Schneider wrote.
Schneider also cautioned that using general fund free balance monies and issuing bonds for debt service, while helpful in a given school year, must be maintained, as it is essentially revenue.
“Once you have fund balance going in, it’s very hard for it to just go away; it’s revenue,” Schneider said. She explained that it is important to keep these used surpluses flat from year to year so that the board does not have to raise taxes to cover a hole in revenue in coming years. “We’re expecting $200,000 less this year already,” Schneider said.