(Editor's note: figures for the estimated tax impact of proposed budget on residents have been corrected with updated numbers).
The South Orange - Maplewood School District has proposed cutting 19 full time positions and slashing the technology "wish list" to plug an estimated $2.8 million gap in the 2013-14 budget year.
Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider presented the proposal to the members of the Board of Education in a special workshop Wednesday night. The document is available on the district's website and can be seen here.
The proposal would add $475,000 of the district's banked cap -- saved from other years when the board has not used it -- to the operating budget. The resulting tax impact, including debt service, would be 2.93% -- or an additional $181 for the average Maplewood household and $191 for South Orange residents (using 2012 figures).
This year, the board could opt to use a total of $1,737,409 in banked cap, some of which expires this year.
"If we add more, it puts a fiscal strain on the taxpayer," said Schneider in a phone interview. "We thought it was fiscally prudent" to use just a portion of the cap.
The district proposes to use the banked cap to purchase technology equipment that will be required for the PARCC (Performance Assessments of Readiness for College and Career), a new state-mandated test that is replacing the NJASK and HSPA in two years.
The district is assuming that state aid will be flat, although the exact amount will not be known until Feb. 28.
The estimated cuts would include:
- $1.6 million in staff cuts
- $670,000 from reducing the technology budget "wish list"
- $180,000 in tuition reduction, through a combination of fewer students being classified and fewer being placed out of district
- $185,000 in centralizing/reducing supplies, centralizing professional development and technology efficiencies.
The total cuts would reduce the proposed budget by $2.8 million.
"This is the worst part of the budget process, the hardest part," said Finance and Facilities Chair Andrea Wren-Hardin in a phone interview. However, she said she was confident that the superintendent's proposals would enable the district to "continue to get the work done."
Schneider explained that several of these cuts would come through a combination of retirements, restructuring programs and changing schedules to make staffing more efficient.
In addition, the district will add staff, including two teachers for the Maplewood Middle School expansion, two world language teachers in the middle schools and one elementary social worker. "These were all already built into the base budget," Schneider said.
- Columbia High School would lose three full-time teachers, a CHS Dean and a Student Assistance Counselor. Schneider said some of these cuts are possible as a result of retirements, restructuring schedules and reallocating some teachers' responsibilities.
- Enrollment changes and changes in how children are classified will allow for the paring of six special education teachers.
- The district will be able to reduce two curriculum specialist positions by creating new, stipended positions that would be filled by "elementary subject leaders" in Language Arts and Math, who will be teachers already employed in the elementary schools.
Wren-Hardin said this last item was a "good example of how we can make that work" by using existing personnel who are closer to the classroom, rather than specialists who travel among different schools. The district will also work with Columbia Teachers College to provide additional professional development in elementary school writing.
Board President Beth Daugherty said in a phone interview, "The curriculum specialists have done fantastic work and this is by no means a reflection on (them)."
"I think administration did a great job of striking a balance between maintaining and even improving programs...while recognizing the challenging economic circumstances/tax burden of our communities," said board member Bill Gaudelli in an email. "The fact that we will likely lose staff is disheartening but likely a continuing reality of austerity measures like the 2% state cap."
"I was very concerned about cutting elementary curriculum staff as I think we still have much work to do here," said board member Madhu Pai in an email. "However the plan to create subject leaders in each of the elementary schools makes me feel more comfortable."
Pai said she was also impressed by the administration's restraint in foregoing the board's recommendation to use the full banked cap -- which would have resulted in a 3.5% tax impact.
Wren-Hardin agreed and cautioned, "I don't want to lose the momentum we have created in the past several years, I don't want to start moving backward or losing teacher morale."
Wren-Hardin also noted it was important to take a long-term view of the budget process down the road. "This was a difficult budget and an especially difficult year" but that with continuing rises in health care, transportation and special education costs, "we are not in a sustainable funding formula."
"The more onerous challenge comes next year and the following one where we're likely to be in a difficult economic climate still and have no banked cap as a safety net," said Gaudelli.
The board will devote its next meeting, on Monday, Feb. 25, at 7:30 p.m. at 525 Academy Street, to more discussion of the budget and the administration will provide multi-year projections of the budget forecast, Daugherty said. (See the agenda here.)
"The 2014-15 revenue is projected to be less," she said, and the district will have to consider how it will fund the Columbia High School expansion that is on the horizon.
Residents with questions may email the board before the meeting at firstname.lastname@example.org or sign up to comment during the two public speaks portions of the meeting.
On March 4, the board will vote to send the preliminary budget to the county. The final vote will take place on March 27.