Caught between reduced state aid, increased enrollment and unsettled labor negotiations with teachers, the Board of School Estimate, which has the final say on Board of Education spending, has agreed to allow the budget for 2012-2013 to stand, passing on to the taxpayers a two percent increase over last year.
In districts with an appointed Board of Education and no public vote on the budget, the annual school budget is reviewed by a Board of School Estimate comprised of the mayor, board president, a council member and a school board trustee. This group has the ability to cut the budget and make recommendations in what areas they see fit.
But the board, realizing the increased strain on the district, agreed not to cut the budget this year at a March 28 meeting.
Board of Education Business Administrator Leo Smith said this is the first increase in the school budget in four years.
“For years, Bayonne has been underfunded by the state of New Jersey,” said Schools Superintendent Dr. Patricia McGeehan.
Only half the state aid
The state was supposed to give the district $5.6 million per year in aid, but for the last two years has been giving the district only $2.8 million.
This is combined with an increase in enrollment of 102 students for the 2010-2011 school year. Projections show the district will get 297 students in the upcoming year.
“For the past four years, our local taxes were not increased [by] one penny by the board,” she said. “Our overall goal is to maintain the current level of education for our 9,500 students and our increased enrollment.”
The $113 million budget has increased by $1,141,723 from last year. $58 million of the budget is to be raised by local taxes.
This budget also has been impacted a sudden drop in the price of solar energy credits, said Smith.
The school district was one of the first in the state and one of the largest non-power companies to install solar panels on many of its buildings. This was a good revenue source for years because the district could sell the power to power companies. But Smith said the market prices dropped over the past year from $685 to $170 per credit.
Board President Will Lawson said rather than cancel programs, the district is seeking to run new or newly-required programs with existing staff.
“We understand the impact on the taxpayers in the midst of a recession,” Lawson said.
Smith noted that while the district was able to retire a number of teachers, the increased enrollment has required the schools to hire many more teachers, more than what is saved by the retirements.
“For years, Bayonne has been underfunded by the state of New Jersey.” – Dr. Patricia McGeehan.
Smith said health insurance costs have also increased, despite efforts to control them.
In pleading the case for the Board of School Estimate to approve the budget, teachers and union officials argued that the district has not had a contract with its teachers for more than a year and that by cutting the increase, the board would make it even tougher for administrators to come up with an equitable agreement with the teachers.
Carol Provair, a special education teacher, feared for teachers who might be singled out because of a letter writing campaign to encourage the board to settle the contract. She said people might be afraid to speak out for fear of retribution.
Mary Egar, a teacher in the district, said the teachers are approaching two years without a contract, and criticized Mayor Mark Smith for a column published in the Bayonne Community News trying to turn the public against the teachers.
“Since when have teachers become the villains of society?” asked Leslie Caswell, another teacher. “Many of us are doing more without pay, and yet we’ve become a scapegoat and held up to public ridicule.”
Gene Woods, a teacher, said that late contracts have been a recurring problem since 1980, and that the cost of living is rising.
“You can’t keep asking us to give and give. After a while there is no more to give,” he said.
Allen D’Angelo, president of the teachers’ union said the two percent increase in the budget is needed just to keep pace, noting that teachers will be paying more for health insurance and into their pensions.
“Most of the teachers will get no raise,” he said.
Al Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.