At Wednesday's meeting of the the members of the dais had their first chance to discuss the preliminary budget for the upcoming year.
Unlike in previous years, this budget will not be voted on by the public after the board at an earlier meeting. With a new process in place the board looks to fulfill a promise they made during last year's budget cycle while still maintain a high level of services for the district's students.
According to information provided by the district the general fund for the budget is $100,409,853 with $63,444,148 coming from the local tax levy. In addition to the general fund there is also $2,399,631 from the special reserve fund and $7,916,104 in the debt service fund with $6,820,104 coming from the tax levy. All told the budget amounts to $110,725,588 with $70,264,252 being raised through taxation.
As board President Tim O'Brien said, one of their goals for this budget was to help with tax relief for residents. Last year, after the budget had been approved the district received slightly more than $1 million in additional state aid with the goal being to return that money to the taxpayers this year.
"That is the budget that is being presented tonight to the board for it's approval," O'Brien said. "I think this will be the first time we've had a reduction in the general tax levy in my recollection. This will be a historic night if we actually get that."
The board meeting came just a day after the finance committee held what O'Brien referred to as a "very thoughtful discussion," about the options for the budget. The spirited debate continued on Wednesday especially when it came to improving technology in the district. "If we are supportive of our children's education and we do see additional state aid that comes in it has been requested that we consider that as part of an investment in technology for our district," O'Brien said.
Tax Relief or Technology
One of the biggest advocates for possibly using the money for technology rather than tax relief was Superintendent Enid Golden. With the board still waiting to see what their state aid will be, Golden said that could change how the board's budget would look. "I would assume that we're going to get a little bit more money," she said. "I don't know if we're talking about 10 thousand or 500 thousand."
With talk of any excess money going into technology, Golden said that she believed the need was more pressing than waiting for the numbers from Trenton. "When I think emergency, I think of a roof caving in. But I have to tell you, the state of technology in this district right now, I'm considering that in my perspective is that that's an emergency," she said.
Because of that and other factors, Golden said she believed it was important to keep in mind that the numbers presented on Wednesday were a tentative budget. "My thought is that I just want to be very clear that what we're saying is excess money that we get in aid if we do, will go into a technology account. If we don't get excess money, or we get very little excess money, I'm going to be asking the board that we go back and we revisit that one million dollars."
Golden's suggestion of applying the money for technology was met with stiff resistance from some members the board. "We are reserving the one million, three thousand for tax relief," O'Brien said of the discussions that had been held so far. "The technology state of affairs absolutely is important, but it doesn't rise to the state of emergency that would precipitate us dipping into that."
O'Brien also said that with the budget presented the way it was, there was money provided for technology which Golden said covered the, "bare minimum of band aids," and added, "That's not going forward, that will put us a third year behind and we're slipping."
She also reiterated her belief that until the district knows its full aid package it was difficult to go into specifics. "I think it will become real when we have a final budget, and the board votes on the final budget," she said.
Board member Al Miller who also serves on the finance committee said it was his belief was that the committee wanted the money to be put toward tax relief. He said he considered an emergency to be a roof collapse or something along those lines.
At a meeting in November Miller said he had proposed a resolution that would set the board's intention to use the money for tax relief at that time. Miller said he was told that as long as it was agreed that that was the board's consensus he did need a formal introduction of a resolution.
One of the members who agreed with the superintendent was Van Noy. He said he believed at the Nov. meeting there was a compromise where $500 thousand of the money would be reserved for technology upgrades and $500 for tax relief.
Van Noy said the technology in the district is "in a critical state." He added, "The fact of the matter is, it's the responsibility of the entire board to look at all the aspects of the education of our children and try to do as best we can for the taxpayer," he said. "I believe that if Gov. Christie's new funding of $213 million is appropriated somewhat fairly to all the districts we should be in good shape and this is a moot conversation."
What Constitutes An Emergency
O'Brien said as a parent in the district he "supports the best technology for our kids," but said there were other factors to consider as well. "We are faced with tough choices everyday as citizens and sometimes our shopping list is longer than our wallet. In this particular case what we have is we have a significant financial crisis. An emergency in the township of which we are all citizens. Which I believe needs to be given significant weight in our decision."
One member of the board who questioned the impact of putting the money to tax relief was Stephen M. Levine. Having had his children go through the district, Levine said he wanted future students to have the same experiences going forward. He said he wanted them to be prepared for "what will be."
Looking for students in the district to "have all that is necessary educationally for them to be prepared to be fully employed citizens," Levine said he wants to see the schools provide them that opportunity.
Working with Board Secretary Ron Sanasac Levine said he broke down what the level of relief would be for the citizens of the township. Levine said prior to the recent reassessment his home value was close to the median for the township. For a resident with an $1800 tax bill Levine he said the percentage of the tax rate from schools with the $500 thousand compromise would make for a $6.45 tax break on a quarterly basis.
When asked By O'Brien what he would like to see done, Levine said, he would like to see any additional money going to tax relief with the board keeping some of the money "that we know right know exist, and put that towards moving this district back to where it was as a leadership lighthouse district in education."
With such a relatively low amount Levine said he would rather see that money put back into the schools. "To me it's worth $6.45 quarterly for us to provide a quality of education that those of you that have children in this district as well as every other parent that has a child in this district deserves," he said.
Fellow board member Joseph Moscato Jr. also said that he would like to see the final budget put half of the extra money to technology in the district and possibly add to that depending on what the final state numbers are.
Board Vice President Suzanne Brennan said she would like to look for other places to find at least some of the money to help the tax relief and technology. "I do believe that we made a commitment as a consensus to this community, to our community to bring tax relief," she said. "Even if it is pennies or dollars, it doesn't sound like a lot but it is a step in the right direction and I think it is important to commit to our town that we set that, we're doing it and we're going to do everything we can to stick to that."
Board member Jeanette Smith also made the shortest comments of the members. "I feel if we're going through the process of creating goals which we did at the beginning of the school year, the finance committee came to the board with goals, there was consensus on the board of what our goals were and that was to use that million dollars to reduce the tax burden on our community which is why it was sent to us. So that's what we need to do," she said.
O'Brien said in his concluding remarks on the topic that he believed with the new budget system the board needed to follow through on its promise. "We have a commitment and we just took away the citizen's right to vote on the budget and move it to November," he said. "Our first act out of the box is to what? Consider breaking the promise to the taxpayers, that doesn't seem to make much sense."
In the end Levine and Van Noy were the only members of the board to vote against the budget with board member Patrick Dowling absent from the meeting.
After the meeting O'Brien said he was encouraged by the work done by the board with the discussions involving the budget. "The end result was that we voted it and the board stuck to its commitment," he said.
He also said he believed any tax relief for the residents was a good thing. "I suspect that most taxpayers would prefer to get something than nothing," he said. "And a promise kept is a sign of commitment that the board made.
With no public vote on the budget, O'Brien said it changes the dynamics of the process. "It is all up to the board and so therefore it just elevates the importance of each board member's participation," he said. "This is not an individual position, this is a board position so if it had gone another way that would have been the consensus of the board. I believe it speaks well for the board that we are willing to have that kind of open dialogue and stand up for our principles on either side."
The full minutes of the Nov. 9 meeting are attached to this story with the bulk of the conversation found starting on page 9.