Wednesday, March 26, 2008

School Board Approves Budget Tab

Only two people commented at a public hearing on the school budget Tuesday (March 25, 2008). After one question from a teacher and lavish praise from a student leader for their hard work, school board members approved a general school tax levy of $6,095,314. Correction: $18,391,262.

That figure - a 4 percent increase mandated by the state - will appear on the April 15 ballot, but Business Administrator/Board Secretary Gary Ottman told the crowd of about 50 people that taxpayers will see an increase of only 1.2 percent on their bills, because debt service dropped by 70 percent.

The school tax increase is the first in the district since 1992. As in several recent presentations, the challenges and cost savings measures were spelled out in a Power Point presentation that was also given out as a handout to ensure public understanding of the new situation.

The final figure represents financial challenges including $3.6 million in salary increases for 2008-09, $700,000 more in fringe benefits, $225,000 to launch the new Emerson School, $200,000 in tuition increases, $1 million more in charter school aid plus an added $313,814 in charter school aid.

To offset the challenges, cost saving measures include the following reductions: nine district administrators, 1.5 IT staff, eight secretaries, one bus driver, one security officer, 51 non-tenured teacher, 17 kindergarten assistants, seven certified support staff, a 50 percent reduction in the Faces/School-Based Youth Services program, four clerical assistants, six parent liaisons and four as-yet unspecified positions.

The proposed reductions were first presented on March 11 and refined over the ensuing weeks in what Interim Superintendent Garnell Bailey called "war room" talks with administrators and staff. Among the guiding forces, the district has experienced a 16 percent drop in student enrollment since the 2002-03 school year, down from 7,734 to the current 6,420 pupils. Bailey urged class consolidation and strategies to better use the district's "human capital" in light of that change.

Although voters will have their say April 15, the state's last word is that the 4 percent increase will stand even if it is rejected at the polls. In future years, Plainfield will be asked to pay more in local school taxes to support district costs, 80 percent of which are now paid by state and federal aid. In surrounding suburban districts, property owners must come up with the bulk of school funding. The increase for Plainfield and other urban districts is a first step toward local property owners shouldering more of a "fair share" of school costs.

--Bernice Paglia


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