School Budget Being Formulated with Projected 15% Cut in State Aid
Official pronouncements on state aid are expected on March 18.
The degree to which Gov. Chris Christie will cut state aid to schools hasn't been made official—and won't be until March 18—but local school officials are formulating the 2010-2011 municipal budget with the expectation of a 15 percent cut in funding.
At stake is the roughly $7 million in state aid the South Orange-Maplewood district has received in recent years, and it's still unknown by how much that amount will be pared down. According to Superintendent Brian Osborne, speaking at Monday night's Board of Education meeting, the 15 percent cut being factored into current budget drafts is based on comments Gov. Christie made last week at a speech in Berkeley Heights. However, the governor subsequently indicated that cuts may be tailored for each district, Osborne said.
Osborne also noted that the budget is being formulated with a 3 percent tax increase—below the 3.98 percent increase agreed to by the Board of School Estimate for the current year's budget, which was the lowest in 20 years.
"The Board of Education believes [3 percent is] the upper limit of what the taxpayers can bear," said Osborne.
Osborne also spoke of the budgetary impact of Gov. Christie's executive order 14, though which he froze current-year state aid to school districts (amounting to $2.2 million in South Orange-Maplewood), obliging them to draw on their surpluses in an effort to fill the state-level budget gap.
"This fiscal environment changes the game for how we approach budgeting," said Osborne, who observed that the prevailing wind in Trenton seemingly discourages the practice of accumulating surplus. He noted that the purpose of surplus is to "dampen the impact of big swings," like the 26 percent increase in health care costs set to go into effect next year. The health-care increase alone amounts to an additional $2.5 million that needs to be budgeted for; a 3 percent tax increase would raise about $2.8 million.
"You can see there's not a lot of money left over to do anything with," said Osborne, noting that his approach to budgeting in the current climate entails continuing and deepening existing initiatives without embarking on much that's new.
In the short-term, the strategy is to cut spending for 2009-2010 by as much as possible in order to preserve surplus for the coming year. A suspension on hiring and purchases was put into effect last week, and Osborne noted that more than $100,000 in purchase orders have been rescinded in the last few days.
Looking toward the 2010-2011 school year, Osborne spoke of scaling back certain programs and initiatives to create savings. He spoke at some length of the inclusion program model for special ed students, through which a special ed teacher essentially co-teaches with a classroom teacher all day so as not to pull special ed students out of their regular classes. Osborne said the goal would be to have a more "tailored use," so the special ed teacher is only in the inclusion classroom for certain subjects.
He also spoke of scaling back pre-K classes to the state-mandated two hours a day; slowing down implementation of the long-range technology plan, which had the goal of creating wireless spaces in every school; and creating "scheduling efficiencies" by doing away with sections of fewer than 15 students at Columbia High School.
In his remarks, Board President Mark Gleason noted that school officials had long been aware of the state's financial straits and that a "day of reckoning" was looming and urged the administration to carefully analyze the budget—amounting to roughly $111.8 million in its current draft form—to see where funding is deployed most effectively. He observed that improvements are needed for the district to compare more favorably to others in its district factor group and to lift some local schools out of the "in need of progress" category in the state Department of Education's school report cards.
"$110 million is a lot of money, and it's not working across the board," he said.
Key dates: State aid figures will be announced on March 18. A workshop of the Board of Education and the Board of School Estimate (which includes officials from South Orange and Maplewood) will convene on March 24 to review the budget. The budget is scheduled for action by the BoSE on March 31.