What You Need To Know About The New School Budget

By on April 30, 2018

At its April 24 meeting, the Verona Board of Education approved the budget for the 2018-2019 school year. It is one of the tightest–and most painful–school budgets in recent years, hamstrung by rising special education costs and, as always, the lack of funding reform from Trenton. Here’s what you need to know about it:

What’s the total cost?: $34,399,387, an increase in the general tax fund levy of 2.39%. According to the district, that works out to an additional $147 per household. Most of the school budget–94.69%–comes from local taxes, with just 3.23% coming from state aid. If the state were fully funding school aid, Verona would be getting more than $2.2 million. Instead, Verona will be getting $1.1 million and, like most other New Jersey school districts, Verona hasn’t been fully funded in years. Verona will be spending $12,843 per pupil, the lowest of any school in its comparable group; Ramsey Boro spends the most in this group, $19,007.

Why didn’t I get to vote on this?: Former Gov. Chris Christie signed a law in 2012 that allowed school districts to do away with a public vote on their budgets unless it was above the state-mandated 2% cap on expenditures. Because not every school budget expense is counted against the cap, it can seem that the district is over the cap when it isn’t. The BOE discussed the budget at several meetings prior to the vote and the public could have questioned spending then. The public will, however get to vote on two special ballot questions this November, one on adding a full-day kindergarten program and the other on expanding mental health services. More on that below.

How will it be spent?: General salaries account for 65% of the total budget. Thanks to “breakage”, what the district calls the difference between the high salaries of teachers who are retiring and the lesser amount generally paid to district newcomers, general salary costs have remained fairly flat for the last five years. Despite the multiple strategies that the BOE has used to blunt benefits costs, they rose 4.39% in the new budget. Worse still, special education costs jumped more than 10% over the 2017-2018 budget. Special ed spending will be $9.1 million for salaries and services for an anticipated 298 full-time special ed students, compared with $22.2 million for the 1,933 general education students the district will have in the fall.

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Were there any big cuts?: Yes, several. To keep the budget within the cap, the district is cutting one math and one English position at VHS, eliminating two janitor positions and reducing several full-time world languages positions (Mandarin, French and Spanish) to part-time. VHS will not fill a business teacher position left open after a resignation and the district will eliminate an elementary technology position that the BOE said is no longer needed because technology is now much more embedded in the curriculum. There was also a 4.69% cut in the non-discretionary budget, which covers buildings & grounds spending, training and janitorial costs, and a 5.53% decrease in the already minuscule discretionary budget, which is used for classroom and extra-curricular supplies. The slashing of discretionary spending means that Verona will spend just $288 per pupil on classroom supplies, compared to $427 in the Caldwell/West Caldwell district, and $440 per student on extra-curricular activities, the lowest in our comp group. The cuts to the B&G budget mean that we will likely have another referendum to fund that spending in the near future.

When the BOE voted on the budget resolution, Board member Michele Bernardino voted No. She explained after the meeting that she supported the budget but had reservations about one of the two special questions that were included in the resolution. The proposal on full-day kindergarten seeks to raise an additional $215,000–or $42 per household–for the program but, Bernardino notes that that is only the first-year cost. If costs rise in future years, the extra cost will have to come out of the main budget. “I question whether the benefits of full-day K warrant the financial implications of sustaining the program beyond year 1,” Bernardino said. Rising costs are less of an issue with the second question, on mental health, because most of that program would be administered by a private company that would have to stay within the monies raised by the special question. There will be a BOE presentation on the kindergarten question in May and one on mental health in September.

The Verona Education Association, which is the union for the district’s teachers and paraprofessionals, was not happy with the budget. “The cuts to teaching staff at Verona High School are counterintuitive when the building is currently experiencing its largest student population in years,” VEA President Christopher Tamburro said in a statement. (The BOE, which is currently negotiating a new contract with the VEA, noted during the budget presentation that certain classes would increase in size because of the teacher cuts, but did not say by how much.) The VEA also took issue with the cuts to custodians. “Aging buildings require more effort by our custodial and maintenance staff to maintain,” Tamburro said. “Our custodial staff is already lower in number than it should be.”

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“While the budget included hundreds of thousands of dollars of reductions to staff, programs, and supplies, no changes were made to Verona’s 20-member administrative/management staff,” Tamburro said. “The VEA has analyzed the budgets of the group of districts that the Board uses to compare its financing, and has found that Verona has among the highest administrative cost as a percentage of total budget.”

You can watch the full BOE meeting in the video below. Business Administrator Cheryl Nardino’s presentation of the budget begins about 24 minutes into the meeting. The PDF version of the budget presentation is here and the user-friendly version is here.

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