Wednesday, February 27, 2008

State Mandates School Tax Increase

Local school taxes have held at $17,683,906 since 1992, with outside aid currently paying more than 80 percent of school costs. As officials have predicted, the balance is about to tip in the 2008-09 school budget, with a state-mandated 4 percent increase in what city residents must contribute in school taxes.

The local school tax for 2008-09 will be $18,391,262.

The increase is the first step toward meeting a state “fair share” goal of Plainfield residents contributing about $33 million toward school costs, Business Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottmann said at Tuesday’s work and study meeting of the Board of Education.

Board President Patricia Barksdale reacted by saying, “It is sort of like a sticker shock.”

Barksdale said the news echoed Gov. Jon Corzine’s “cold turkey” budget message comment Tuesday on state spending.

With draft budget adjustments described Tuesday at a work and study meeting, the overall 2008-09 proposed school budget will be $122,460,540 million, an $185,000 increase amounting to a one-tenth of 1 percent, Ottmann said. The board must submit the budget by March 4 to Union County Schools Superintendent Carmen Centuolo, but will then have a few weeks to refine it before a public hearing on March 25. The budget will be up for a vote April 15, but even if it is defeated, the local school tax levy increase cannot be reduced, Ottmann said.

Ottmann said for 2008-09, the district projects 6,450 students in 13 schools from pre-kindergarten to grade 12. But he said the district is operating on an old business model based on an enrollment of about 8,000 students. In the past three years, the student population has dropped by 16 percent, or a loss of 1,500 students, he said.

Meanwhile, new fixed costs have grown by about $5 million, including salary increases, benefits and outside tuitions. A reduction in surplus and interest, along with the mandatory tax increase, will result in a shortfall of about $5 million, despite a 2 percent increase in state aid for 2008-09. In future years, state aid will be flat.

For all these reasons, the proposed budget includes numerous staff adjustments. Thirty-two academic coaches may be asked to return to classroom teaching for savings of $1,792,000. Thirty-four kindergarten assistants may be eliminated to save $1.22 million. Other possible reductions include five vice principals, five special education teachers, eight secretaries, nine parent liaisons, seven support staff such as middle school guidance and dropout prevention personnel, three security guards, four elementary assistants and one bus driver.

The total projected savings for these reductions would be $5,482,000. But built into the formula was a leeway of about $700,000 that will be the basis of dialogue among the board, school staff and residents in the coming weeks.

Even though Ottmann made his presentation at a public meeting, board members voiced concerns that the new situation would be misunderstood once it hit the media. Board member Lisa Logan Leach asked for the administration to develop a set of “talking points” so that all nine board members could address citizen concerns uniformly.

Besides the March 4 preliminary adoption, the board may take up budget concerns at a March 11 work and study meeting, a March 18 business meeting and the March 25 public hearing.

Plainfield is one of the state’s Abbott districts, about 30 deemed most needy among its more than 600 school districts. For many years, Abbott districts have received additional aid to address their problems. On Tuesday, board member Christian Estevez said the changes presented meant the Abbott extras “have just been dismantled before our eyes.”

“Almost everything here hits the classroom,” he said. “This is a shock to me.”

Eric Jones, president of the Plainfield Education Association that represents teachers and support staff, said, “This presentation is extremely disturbing, because out of 11 recommendations, only one affects administrators.”

Referring to the administrators’ union, he said, “If PEA takes a hit, then PASA should take a hit.”

Barksdale said concerns voiced Tuesday would be considered, but added, “This is going to be painful for all of us.”

Interim Schools Superintendent Garnell Bailey stressed that the tentative budget had to be submitted by March 4, but said it is still “a work in progress.”

--Bernice Paglia


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