By John Burton
RED BANK – Borough property owners are looking at a nearly 10 percent hike in school taxes and staff losses, if the proposed 2014-15 school-year budget is adopted.
“The choices that we faced were all bad choices,” said board President Ben Forest as the Board of Education and its finance committee attempted to reign in costs and spending while maintaining programs for the 2014-15 school year.
If adopted as proposed, the school portion of tax bills will increase by about $250 for a house assessed at $400,000, Forest said.
Among the things the budget will trigger is the loss of a couple of positions, according to Deborah Pappagallo, district business administrator. Those cuts will be determined later this spring, as well as the paring of programs and other expenditures for next year.
Forest said the budget preparation process was about “striking a balance between what is doable and what is affordable.”
The preliminary budget, introduced at the March 18 Board of Education meeting, has a total operational general fund budget of $17.9 million and includes a 9.98 percent increase to the general tax levy rate.
A significant reason for the hike is the district’s increase in state aid for the next school year is not as large as this year’s, Pappagallo said.
For the 2013-14 school year, the district received a roughly $340,000 increase in state aid, bringing the total to $2.91 million. The increase for 2014-15 is expected about $26,000, for a total state aid of $2.94 million.
Due to fixed expenses, state mandates and the continuing increase in enrollment the district has seen over the last few years, the $26,000 “doesn’t really do much for us,” Pappagallo said.
On top of that, the district has had to prepare for the state Department of Education-mandated Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) standardized testing. Those tests, which have replaced the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (ASK) testing, requires the district to spend more than $250,000 in technology and infrastructure upgrades to prepare, Pappagallo said.
The tests are done in real time via the Internet, and that has meant buying new computers and rewiring school facilities, Forest said.
Plus, “everything goes up,” including the cost of transportation, health insurance and employee contractual obligations, Pappagallo said.
The district also will have to provide $1.6 million to support the district’s charter school, the business administrator said.
The district has seen a higher cost for special education with the increase of students in that program. The cost per pupil in special education can be as $80,000 a year per student. “For a small district like ours, that’s difficult,” Forest said.
School officials “went through (the budget) line-item by line-item and we cut things across the board,” Pappagallo said. Among the items officials are trimming are some technology upgrades, facility work and equipment replacement along with a reduction in school supplies and some extracurricular programs, she said.
Requests for additional staff, such as hall, lunch and bus monitors, were denied for next year. The hope of reinstituting some student field trips, eliminated from the budget a few years ago, were also dashed, she said.
“It’s not a good position to be in,” said Interim Superintendent Harold Reid, adding, “of course, people are going to cry about the increase.” He hoped taxpayers would appreciate the position the school board was in and the efforts members took to ensure the increase wasn’t higher.
The budget remains a work in progress until the April 29 public hearing and final adoption.
The district has made strides in recent years “providing good, basic education,” Forest said.
Any further cuts would mean losing momentum and hurting students. “I can’t support rolling back our services to a degree that would hurt in a very measurable way the quality of education for our students,” he said.