Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Charter School Costs to Force More Cuts

Last-minute charter school news tacked another $1 million onto the proposed 2008-09 school budget that had to be approved by the Board of Education Tuesday, and so will mean more scrutiny for cuts before the March 25 budget hearing.

The preliminary budget is now $146,648,645, with a local tax levy of $18.4 million.

The district was already reeling from a state-mandated 4 percent increase in the local tax levy, the first change in 15 years. Under a new funding formula, Plainfield taxpayers must take the first step toward a $33 million “fair share” of school costs. In contrast to suburban districts that pay 80 percent or more of school costs, Plainfield residents had contributed only a single-digit fraction, $17,683,906 annually, since 1992.

Click here for Plaintalker’s coverage of the Feb. 26 Board of Education meeting where the mandated increase was announced.

While budget cuts had to be indicated on the document sent to the state, the district can make modifications until the March 25 budget hearing, after which the budget must be published in time for a public vote April 15, when school board candidates will also be elected. But School Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottmann has already stated that even if the public votes down the local tax levy, the state-mandated 4 percent increase will stand.

On Tuesday (March 4, 2008), Ottmann made a presentation that dealt with three items.

One he tagged as the “State Aid Windfall Myth,” refuting published reports that Plainfield was getting $13.8 million in state aid for 2008-09. Ottmann said the district was getting $14 million in pre-school aid next year, but it only reflected a change in title from similar aid received this school year. The 2 percent increase in state aid for 2008-09 is $1.9 miliion and will be flat in future years.

In what he dubbed the “Tax Levy Surprise,” Ottmann said the current year combined levy of $18,389,614 included both the general fund that is up for a vote and debt service that is not on the ballot. For next year, the combined levy of $18,614,294 is an increase of only 1.1 percent, Ottmann said.

Moving on to the “Charter School Surprise,” Ottmann said the district received word Friday that last year’s $6.9 million tab for charter schools would increase to $7.9 million next year. There was no time between Friday and Tuesday to come up with changes in the preliminary budget to be sent to the state, he said, but the district must now identify another $1 million in cuts before March 25.

Charter schools are public schools that receive 90 percent of costs per pupil from the district, even though the charter schools report directly to the state and the district has no oversight into their operations. Ottmann pointed out that all three charter schools in Union County are in Plainfield.

The preliminary budget included tentative cuts as described in Plaintalker’s previous post, but Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey said she met with principals Tuesday to discuss further options. The board will also discuss the budget cuts at meetings March 11 and March 18.

Budget information will be posted on the district’s web site and will be sent home to parents. Bailey also proposed a “School Budget 101” informational meeting between now and March 25.

Only about 20 people were on hand at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, with several more arriving later. Speakers called on the board to save the jobs of kindergarten assistants and family liaisons from cuts. Eric Jones, president of the Plainfield Education Association, said none of the concerns Tuesday dealt with the “top-heavy” administration.

“If they don’t affect children directly, they have to go,” he said.

Others called for rallies in Trenton against the mandated local school tax increase, restoration of the Citizens’ School Budget Advisory Committee and a letter campaign to protest to legislators about the new state funding formula.

Click here to see the district’s web site, which has information on the 2008-09 budget process and will be updated as necessary. The site also has meeting schedules and locations.

--Bernice Paglia


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