The Board of School Estimate approved a tax levy for the 2012-2013 school year at a 2% "all in" increase over the 2011-2012 tax levy on Wednesday night, March 28.
$3,324,625 will be raised to pay for debt service for the district; while $101,959,453 will be raised to pay the general fund. The total amount to be raised is $105,284,078.
Because the towns of Maplewood and South Orange are on calendar years fiscally, the amount to be raised for 2012 is somewhat different for the yearly budget compared to the school year calendar. A total of $104,251,375 will be raised in 2012 across the two towns. Maplewood is responsible for $59,803,069; South Orange for $44,448,306.
In Maplewood, the owner of a home at the average assessed value of $422,800 will be paying $7,739 in taxes to the school district in 2012. In South Orange, the owner of a home at the average assessed value of $460,274 will pay $9,098 in taxes to the district in 2012.
The tax levy was approved after the BSE, chaired by Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca, indicated that it would not approve the tax levy as put forward initially by the Board of Education and the South Orange-Maplewood School District. The total tax impact of the proposed levy was at a 2.16% increase over last year when debt service was figured in with the general fund.
"It is my sense that this resolution ... as a package is not going to have sufficient votes to pass," said DeLuca of the initial proposal. DeLuca asked Superintendent Dr. Brian Osborne to lower the amount to be levied.
After defending the inital proposal (see video), Osborne and Business Administrator Cheryl Schneider proposed moving money from the capital reserve to reduce the total amount of debt service to be raised from $3,489,625 to $3,324,625 — a reduction of $165,000. Schneider said that the district had hoped to use the amount — and another $50,000 in the capital reserve — for emergency generators at the high school. "Hopefully, next year is not a year with an emergency," she said. Schneider said that using money from the capital reserve instead of the operating budget would at least enable the district to avoid cutting programs.
Only one member of the Board of School Estimate — Board of Education member Wayne Eastman — argued for passage of the tax levy at 2.16% all in. Eastman argued that the budget had been arrived at after "a pretty painstaking process" and that the Board of Education had "moved away" from an era of increases of 4, 5, 6 and even 7% "to an era of fiscal responsibility" in recent years.
Eastman felt that those who wanted 2% "all in" had had "lots of opportunities" to share their concerns at a point earlier in the process. Eastman worried that the new, transparent process that the BSE, the Board of Education and the district had engaged in for this budget year "is imperiled for next year."
But the vast majority of the BSE felt that the message of a 2% "all in" tax levy increase had been made clearly throughout the process. Said Maplewood Committeeman Marlon K. Brownlee, "We in Maplewood have been very consistent to say that the budget must be 2% all in."
South Orange Village Trustee Michael Goldberg said that the BSE had been "crystal, crystal clear" in telling the district and Board of Education that it wanted a 2% all-in tax levy increase. Goldberg said that he would even like to see the district do better going forward — noting smaller tax levy increases in districts like Livingston, Millburn, Montclair, Summit and even reductions in Caldwell and Berkeley Heights.
DeLuca took pains to applaud the superintendent and the Board of Education on the budget — as did other BSE members.
"I support Brian Osborne. I think you're doing a great job," said DeLuca to the superintendent. "I don't doubt that this is an appropriate budget," but, said DeLuca, "These are difficult times."
DeLuca then took Eastman to task. "I think you are off base," said DeLuca. "We didn't sign up for the process to be a rubber stamp." DeLuca accused Eastman of "posturing" in a "political season."
Eastman later defended his position, returning to his opening remarks contending that this year's budget was open, transparent and reasonable in its tax impact. Eastman said he had been a part of "moving the district to fiscal responsibility" under former BOE President Mark Gleason and current President Beth Daugherty.
Eastman told fellow BSE members that he felt that former Finance Chair Steve Latz was the person who presided over a past pattern of increased budgets and tax levies. Eastman told Patch that he felt Latz's fiscal record is a real issue this year, given Latz's role as a key advisor for the Higer and Swanson-Payne-Parrish campaigns. Eastman is running for re-election to the Board of Education.