Although voters did not swarm to the voting booths Tuesday to support the $22 million school budget for 2002-2003 and $175,000 second ballot question, the low voter turnout gave both items a narrow victory, avoiding a repeat of last year's council cuts.
Voters passed this year's budget 648 to 616 and the second ballot question, 658 to 597.
Of the town's 9,640 registered voters, 1,264 voted on the budget and 1,255 on the second ballot question. The new budget shows an increase of $1.4 million from last year's adjusted budget. Last year, voters rejected a similar increase, sending the budget to the Town Council to get cut.
"Last year the council cut our budget by $250,000," said the clearly relieved Schools Superintendent Constantino Scerbo. "That was the largest cut in the history of our town."
The new budget will increase the local tax rate by 48 cents per $100,000 of assessed value. The average assessed value of homes in Secaucus is about $200,000, so the average homeowner can expect an increase in school taxes of about $96. (Property owners pay an overall tax rate that includes town, county and school taxes.)
"I'm delighted this budget passed," said Board Member Tom Troyer, who opposed a similar budget increase during his run for office last year. The big difference this year, he explained, was his ability to sit in on the discussions and understand the reasoning behind the decisions.
The biggest item contributing to this year's budget was the 22 percent increase in state health care premiums for school employees. Insurance premiums in this budget are $775,846 more than last year, for a total of $3.2 million.
"Over the last three years our insurance payments have gone up a total of 67 percent," Scerbo said. "The state caps our spending, but won't do anything to cap the rise in insurance costs. That's not fair."
Voters approved a second ballot question that allocates $175,000 for the cleaning of air ducts at the high school. The ducts had not been cleaned since the school was constructed in 1976, although board members said they'd struggled to find the necessary funds in several budgets. Due to the 3 percent cap imposed by the state, they could not find those funds in the past.
"I'm very glad voters had confidence in his board," Scerbo said.
Three board members elected to three seats
500 more voters cast ballots regarding the school budget than they did for the candidates in this year's uncontested board of education election.
Eleanore Reinl led voting with 818 votes, followed by new-comer Susan Pirro with 780, and William Millevoi with 748.
This was Reinl's ninth straight election to the board, making her the longest-serving board member in the history of Secaucus. When this term is complete in 2005, she will have served 27 years.
In celebrating the victory of the budget after the closing of the polls Tuesday, Reinl said that over the decades on the board, she has seen an overall improvement of education in the Secaucus school district. She also said when first starting, older members of the community dominated the school board.
"Now most of the members are younger people," she said.
Although Reinl came after the district constructed Secaucus High School, she was part of the team that expanded the two elementary schools, one of the things she sees as a major accomplishment during her term in office.
Millevoi, who just won his fourth term, also called the expansion a major accomplishment, saying that the board spent seven years in planning it, and struggled to get a bond passed in order to move ahead. Voters approved the $6.5 million bond in 2000, and the state refunded over $2 million as part of its construction relief program.
Millevoi, a former educator in the Jersey City school district, said he was most proud of the increase in Advanced Placement classes Secaucus high school offers - something that better prepares high school students for college.
Over the next three years, Millevoi said, the board will likely set up professional internships for students, allowing Secaucus kids to take courses that will prepare them for a career in a profession, as well allow them to work part time for firms.
"That will give them practical experience," Millevoi said.
This will be Pirro's first term as a board member, and though she has been very active in the schools as president of the high school and middle school PTAs, she said she has a lot to learn and will seek to help in any way she can.
"I'll do what is best for the school district," she said.