(Correction: the BOE will vote on the school budget on Thursday, March 21).
The South Orange - Maplewood School District will face a skyrocketing budget shortfall within the next five years, leading to an eventual $17 million deficit, according to recent projections issued by the adminstration.
Business administrator Cheryl Schneider presented the numbers as part of a review of the 2013-14 budget at the February Board of Education meeting.
"South Orange - Maplewood, every single local school district cannot budget ourselves out of this situation," said Facilities and Finance chair Andrea Wren-Hardin. "This is staggeringly helpless."
The board is currently addressing a $2.8 million shortfall in the 2013-14 budget. Schneider's projections show that gap steadily widening to $17.4 million by 2018-19, assuming the tax levy increases by 2% each year, costs continue to grow as in the past and state aid remains flat.
The chart can be found in a document on the district's website.
Superintendent Brian Osborne and Board President Beth Daugherty also discussed the projections in a recent budget presentation to the Maplewood Township Committee.
"This graph is stunning," said committeeman Jerry Ryan. "You've gotta be doing something different," he said. He said he hoped there would be long-term strategic conversation and planning to address the issue.
"I don't know how you don't go home and put the covers over your head," Mayor Vic DeLuca said to Osborne and Daugherty.
"There are 6,760 reasons a year not to do that," said Osborne, referring to the district's students, "and we will figure out a way to continue providing quality and do more with less." However, he admitted it was becoming more and more difficult to find places to cut.
"The five-year projection worries me," said Jeffrey Bennett in an email to Patch. "We cannot budget our way out of the deficit, but neither can we tax our way out."
Bennett said that although many areas were outside of the administration's and board's control, such as growing health care costs and flat or reduced state aid, the board should continue to scrutinize the budget each year.
He said while SOMSD schools are operated efficiently, there are non-direct classroom areas where spending is above the local average, including remedial education, attendance and social work, transportation, and improvement of instructional services.
On March 4, the with an operating budget with a 2.47% tax impact and an "all-in" total tax impact of 2.93%. Bennett, Wayne Eastman, and Madhu Pai voted against the budget, saying they wanted to keep to a 2% tax increase in the operating budget.
This is the first year that the Board of Education does not submit their budget to the Board of School Estimate and the board itself sets the tax levy.
At the February BOE meeting, a frustrated Wren-Hardin said the district cannot keep "cutting and cutting" when "the answer is not to continue to look inward; we have to be looking outward." She called the projections "horrifyingly awful."
"This is depressing," said Daugherty. "There's no other way to put it."
The Board of Education will vote on the final budget on Thursday, March 21 (note: this is a change from the original date). There will be a public hearing before the vote. The public can also make its views known at the next regular Board of Ed meeting on March 18.