The Secaucus Board of Education has proposed a $33.1 million budget for next school year, a spending plan that calls for a 3.3 percent increase in the school tax portion of property taxes, but which is below the new state mandated 2 percent tax cap.
Almost all of the budget – $32.1 million – is funded by local taxpayer dollars, with the rest coming from federal and state aid and grants. Although Gov. Christopher Christie took away every penny of state aid to the Secaucus Public School District last year, a move that forced the district to spend down its nearly $800,000 reserve, some state aid was restored for the 2011-2012 school year. For the 2011-2012 school year Secaucus will receive $280,000 (after debt service fee).
“We had to cut approximately $1.8 million from our current [2010-2011] budget because costs continue to go up.” – Cynthia Randina
If the voters approve the tax levy, the average assessed Secaucus home worth $160,000 will see an increase of $4.58 a month, or $55 a year, in school taxes. (The school board uses a different home assessment value than the municipality.) School taxes are added to municipal and county taxes to make up the overall tax rate paid by residents.
Consolidate and eliminate
In her budget presentation to the community on March 24, Schools Superintendent Cynthia Randina continued many of the themes that have become familiar to residents who have attended budget hearings in recent years.
“We are faced with having to keep pace with rising costs in the area of fuel, in the area of health benefits, salary costs, and general operating costs,” Randina said. “We had to cut approximately $1.8 million from our current [2010-2011] budget because costs continue to go up.” Sill, she added, “[Despite] huge cuts to our budget, we have attempted to preserve and add to our schools.” Randina said she hoped her presentation would demonstrate “how we did our share in minimizing the budget impact on our residents.”
All expenditures and cuts, Randina said, are now guided by a new mission statement recently developed by her administration. Money, she said, will be spent only on expenses that are critical to classroom instruction, health, and safety.
To bridge the funding gap, Randina said that she, Acting Board Administrator Ron Smith, and the trustees consolidated positions and various resources. Specifically, next year the school system will:
• Cut the number of hours school building are open, to “essential use only. That includes not using our buildings on Sundays,” Randina said. Afterschool program hours will be cut back.
• The district is planning to further cut energy costs, as it did in the 2010-2011 school year. The district has done an energy audit and is part of an initiative spearheaded by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission to install solar panels throughout Secaucus.
• Staff vacations will be approved with an emphasis on reducing the need for substitutes and aides.
• Extracurricular activities and athletic programs that have low student involvement will again be eliminated, as several were in the 2010-2011 school year. Which specific programs might be on the chopping block has yet to be decided, Randina said last week.
• To reduce health care expenses for employees, Randina said the school district will solicit bids for health care providers.
• Staff positions that become vacant due to retirements will be refilled on a case by case basis. Nonessential support staff positions that are assigned outside the classroom will either be consolidated or eliminated.
After the 2010-2011 budget passed last year, the Secaucus Education Association (SEA), the local teachers’ union, was taken aback when a handful of teachers received preliminary lay-off notices. (State law requires that teachers be notified in the spring if there’s a possibility they may not be hired back for the fall term.) Most of the teachers who received the preliminary layoff notices, were, however, hired back for the current school year.
But some parents have asked whether teachers could again receive pink slips even if the 2011-2012 budget passes.
In response to this concern Randina said last week, “As per BOE accountability regulations, we can only hire based on student needs. Until all scheduling, student Individualized Education Programs and retirements have been taken into consideration, we’re not able to answer this question at this time. If any reductions in staff are warranted, we will notify staff…by May 15 of non-renewal of their contract.”
Rejection a possibility?
Because the proposed budget includes a 3.3 percent tax increase that follows a 2.5 percent increase last year, some board members and other town officials are concerned that overstretched taxpayers could reject it at the polls.
Should this happen, the budget will go before the Secaucus Town Council. The council would likely work with the Board of Education to make more cuts.
In the unlikely event of an impasse between the two bodies, the town could ask Acting Hudson County Schools Superintendent Tim Brennan to step in to arbitrate the matter.
“When the budget is returned to the Town Council,” said Brennan, “the governing body may do nothing, or it may suggest reductions. It can suggest reductions in both dollars or [in the types of programs to be cut]. …The budget would only come to me for my review if, say, the Town Council wanted to cut $5 million and the schools superintendent said, ‘With this cut, I am not longer able to offer the coursework that would lead students to pass the tests associated with the state’s institutional standards.’ ”
Brennan has approved the proposed budget that will be presented to voters later this month.
SEA President Robert Anderson said the union will support the budget.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.