It’s now up to the Town Council to come up with a revised budget for the Secaucus Public School District after voters rejected the proposed spending plan for the upcoming school year.
The council now has until May 19 to make cuts to the rejected budget before submitting its recommendations to the Hudson County Schools Superintendent for his consideration. A final budget must ultimately be approved by New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education and could take months to be adopted.
A stunning turn of events put the school budget in limbo after Secaucus voters rejected the proposed education budget for the 2011-2012 school year during Wednesday’s Board of Education election. This is the first time voters in town have defeated the school budget since the early 2000s.
“The result surprised me.” – Cynthia Randina
Lisa Snedeker won big in her first campaign for school board, picking up 1,424 votes. Incumbent trustee Dora Marra, who garnered 1,061 votes, was also successful in winning her second term on the board. Both women had long been favored to win seats on the board.
But Lewis’ victory over Reinl, who has served on the school board for more than 30 years, was an unexpected defeat.
Voters selected Snedeker, Marra and Lewis from a field of six candidates that also included Reinl, who finished fourth, Jules Carricarte, and Mark Gutmann. The three winners will be sworn in next month and will each serve three-year terms on the nine-member board of trustees.
But perhaps the biggest news of the night was the defeat of the budget in a town that prides itself on the quality of its public school system and has long equated this quality with passage of the annual school spending plan.
By a wide margin, 1,197 votes to 750 votes, residents rejected the school district’s $33.1 million budget that had called for a 3.3 percent tax increase.
‘A wake up call’
Voter discontent with the annual school budget has been growing since the appointment of current Schools Superintendent Cynthia Randina. Since her arrival in August 2008, residents have questioned some of her spending and hiring priorities. This apparent discontent led to an open grassroots campaign this year against passage of the budget, a campaign that was even supported by some retired teachers.
Still, Randina said she was taken aback by its defeat.
“Yes, the result surprised me. The budget was extremely well constructed, maintained programs, and kept them intact for all students,” she said in an emailed statement Thursday morning. “Its defeat signifies the economy has still not recovered.”
Randina has often stated in the past that her administration has held costs down by consolidating positions, eliminated jobs through attrition, and has been extremely frugal about adding new expenditures in the budget.
Marra, however, believes that Randina has been scapegoated for a financial mess she didn’t create.
“They [residents] keep knocking the administration about administrative fees and how much money we’re spending,” said Marra. “But if you look at our budget, most of it is for things that we’re contractually obligated to provide. [Randina] gets blamed for irresponsible budgeting from past boards and past decades. That’s why the budget didn’t pass and that’s why Eleanore lost.”
Reinl, who said she was “disappointed that the budget did not pass,” strongly believes the 2011-2012 budget that was presented to the community last month “was a good budget. I was hoping people would understand that the money is being used for programs, for classroom instruction. It was all for educational programs.”
But Mayor Michael Gonnelli said, “Between the recent hirings of several new employees, and the lack of communication between the teachers union and the school administration, there’s a sentiment out there in the community that the school district isn’t doing as well as it should. I think the election was a real wake up call for everyone that a lot needs to be improved.”
By law, the Secaucus School Board has until May 5 to get a certified copy of the defeated budget to the Town Council, according to the state Department of Education.
Once the council gets this copy of the budget a committee of six will examine it and recommend spending cuts.
The committee will include Town Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Margaret Barkala; Acting Tax Collector Nick Goldsack, (who is also a CFO); Town Administrator David Drumeler; Deputy Mayor John Bueckner; Councilman Robert Costantino; and the mayor. The committee will also receive input from Acting School Board Business Administrator Ron Smith, Town Attorney Anthony D’Elia, and the town auditors.
This committee must submit its recommended revised budget, including the amount of money to be raised from tax dollars, to the county board of taxation and Acting Hudson County Schools Superintendent Tim Brennan by May 19.
The mayor said he plans to hold a televised public hearing on the revised budget before this May 19 due date.
Gonnelli said he could not estimate what the revised tax rate might be since the committee has not yet met. But, he said, “We’ve already seen the proposed budget, and we’ve gone through their audit. So we do have a sense of certain line items we’re going to be looking at. We intend to do what we did with our own town budget, which is go through it line item by line item. We’re going to make sure that money owed to the district is being billed and collected…I know there are areas that can be cut.”
Marra last week predicted major cuts totaling $1 million to $2 million that could “drastically” impact such popular programs as pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, athletics, and extracurricular activities.
The day after the election the mayor said several teachers contacted him worried that they might lose their jobs under a revised budget with steep spending cuts.
But Gonnelli countered, “I can assure the public that’s not going to happen.”
The school board will have opportunities to weigh in on the revised budget before it is finalized.
Winners stress better ‘communication’
Marra and Snedeker both said last Thursday they planned to make improved communications between the school board and the teachers’ union a top priority.
“There is a lot of negativity in the district right now,” said Snedeker. “I’m new to the board, so I have a lot to learn right now. But I know I plan to do whatever I can to smooth relations between our teachers and the board. Because the path we’re on now is too negative and isn’t doing anything to improve the education of our kids.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.