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School District Still Aiming for 2% Tax Levy

Adjustments and banked cap give the district the ability to go to a 3.48% tax levy increase.

The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education gave approval to a preliminary 2012-2013 school budget of $114.9 million on Monday night, March 5. The Board of School Estimate will vote on the proposed $101,959,453 tax levy to support the budget at a public meeting on March 28.

That tax levy represents a 2% increase over last year's budget. District Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider pointed out that the district is allowed to go as high as 3.48% this year due to adjustments and banked cap, but did not do so because of awareness of the tax strain on residents as well as clear indications from the Board of School Estimate that an increase of greater than 2% would not be supported.

Schneider noted that an increase in state aid this year -- while not bringing the district back to historic levels before drastic cuts in 2009 -- helped the district avert some painful cuts in staffing. State aid rose from $3,592,077 for 2011-2012 to $4,135,298 in 2012-13.

Schneider said that major cost drivers in the budget included health benefits, out-of-district tuition costs, transportation and energy. In her presentation (see attached), she detailed ways in which the district had worked to find efficiencies in these areas.

After Schneider's presentation, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Brian Osborne called the budget "fiscally prudent and educationally sound." Board member Wayne Eastman agreed, saying the budget struck a "reasonable balance" between student needs and taxpayers' burden.

David Giles said he was "concerned that the budget doesn't go far enough to address proposal for the middle schools and high school. I want to make sure we give our teachers the tools to do what we are asking them to do." Giles also voiced a desire for technology spending (an $180,000 allocation) to be greater in order to ensure that all teachers had better computers and internet access. Osborne assured Giles that the allocation would make a serious leap in replacing computers (replacing more than half if desktops were purchased, less if laptops were chosen) but that the district also had a 5-year replacement plan in place.

Bill Gaudelli questioned whether the addition of curriculum specialists at the middle schools would constitute and "overage" in administration in the middle schools. Osborne said that the additions were not an overage. "We have a depth of need at the middle schools," said Osborne.

Mark Gleason was concerned that the district's increased spending exceeded the rate of cost increases in contracts. He worried that, although debt service, state aid and other revenues supported the increases now, it would be "difficult to find savings in a time of crisis." Osborne said that the increased spending reflected the fact that out-of-district placement schools were adjusting their rates and increasing them 10% or more in many cases -- a cost that the district was trying to avoid by bringing more special needs students in district where possible.

Gleason noted that he wanted to bring up the point because "the conversation always focuses on the tax impact, not the spending number."

Schneider's presentation and other preliminary 2012-2013 budget documents can be found on the school district website here (after clicking on "Business Office," click on "Finance" and then "Budget 2012-2013").

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