2010-04-01 / Front Page

Residents to have say on school tax levy

Jackson board proposes $135M budget for 2010-11
BY DAVE BENJAMIN Staff Writer
Staff and programs in the Jackson School District took what Board of Education Vice President Sharon Dey called “a global hit” last week.

The board on March 23 introduced a budget for the 2010-11 school year that totals $135,929,266.

A public hearing on the budget was held March 31. The meeting was after the deadline for this issue of the Tri-Town News.

Jackson Superintendent of Schools Thomas Gialanella said he was surprised when he learned that Jackson’s state formula aid would drop from $52.2 million in 2009-10 to $45.9 million in 2010-11. He said the state government did an unusually good job of masking its true intent relative to state aid for local school districts.

He noted that the tentative budget the board introduced on March 23 could be changed through March 31.

Business Administrator Michelle Richardson said that because the district was ordered to use surplus it had on hand to pay operating expenses between February and June, that money was not available to help support the 2010-11 budget.

Gov. Chris Christie directed school districts to use their surplus and reserve funds from February through June as he sought to close a deficit in the state’s current budget.

The school district’s 2009-10 budget totaled $140.5 million. The tentative budget for 2010-11 totals $135.9 million.

Although the total budget is down, Jackson property owners will pay more in taxes to support the operation of the district in the coming school year.

Richardson said the tax levy in 2009-10 was $64.9 million. The tax levy for 2010- 11 is projected to be $71.6 million.

“Everybody [school districts] across the state is looking at similar cuts,” Gialanella said. “And we have to either spend less or increase revenues, and our revenues are fairly limited.”

The superintendent said he has been in education for 35 years, including 15 years in central administration, and said this is the first time he has seen cuts at a level such as those that are being made during this budget season.

“We are a people-driven industry and 81 percent of our budget is staffing,” he said. “Whatever we do is going to have an effect on people.”

Areas affected in the tentative budget include staffing levels — a loss of 49 positions, including 26 certified staff and 23 non-certified staff members. Other areas that will be affected include technology, athletics, co-curricular activities, curriculum and instruction, elimination of some courses and increased class size.

Also impacted will be field trips, capital projects, maintenance projects, equipment and supplies, and as of the end of June, the elimination of the adult high school program.

Gialanella said that if the school district’s proposed tax levy is not approved by voters in the April 20 election, the budget may be subject to additional reductions. The Jackson Township Council would review the school budget if the tax levy is defeated and could recommend a reduction in the proposed tax levy.

“This is still a working document,” the superintendent said upon the budget’s introduction. “There will be cuts of staff and programs and it will affect students. If a politician out there is telling you what we’ve done by cutting $7.8 million out of this budget and it’s not going to affect programs, staff and students, they are lying to you, because a district this size cannot sustain those types of cuts without it affecting those three areas.”

During the public portion of the meeting, Jackson Education Association (JEA) President Delores Harvey asked if all the available leverage the district has is included in the bottom line number, and she was told yes.

Gialanella said the board is not raising the tax levy by the full amount allowed by the state. Regulations allow the board to raise the tax levy by 4 percent over the previous year’s tax levy.

“This budget increases the school tax rate by about 5 cents” per $100 of assessed valuation, he said. “If we took the full extent of the [tax levy] cap, we could see an increase of 7 cents.”

An increase of 5 cents on the school tax rate would result in a tax increase of about $150 in the coming year for the owner of a home that is assessed at $300,000. The owner of a home that is assessed at $450,000 would pay $225 more in school taxes.

An increase of 7 cents on the school tax rate would result in a tax increase of about $210 in the coming year for the owner of a home that is assessed at $300,000. The owner of a home that is assessed at $450,000 would pay $315 more in school taxes.

Harvey said that since 2003 there have been cuts in services and programs for children, literacy intervention, basic skills, honors classes, French and German classes, to name only a few.

“And still,” said Harvey, “we have provided in this district for the education of the students because of the hard work by the people who are here who have had to deal with those continuous program cuts. We cannot continue to be held to such a high standard if we continue to have cuts to staff, have increased class size and cuts to services that children need.”

The union president said she has been upset by comments the governor has made about teachers unions.

Resident Nicolas Antonoff, who is a candidate in the April 20 school board election, said if the tax levy proposed by the board is rejected by voters in the school election, the members of the Township Council, if they have any sense or if they would like to be re-elected, should cut the budget back to the 2009-10 tax levy.

Antonoff compared the district’s enrollment today with the enrollment in 2004-05 and said the enrollment is less than 2004- 05, yet he said there are 40 more teachers. He said the board has not cut enough out of the budget.

Resident William Skowronski said Jackson is a good school district and said it is the staff and students that make the district what it is. He asked the board at what point the cuts in staff and programs will be enough. He advised the board not to listen to people who talk about taxes all the time and who constantly say the district should be cutting back. He said that is a ridiculous notion.

“The future of this town is in your hands,” said Skowronski. “The future of this town lies with our children and not with people my age. You [the board members] control the quality, the very essence of why people move into this town.”

He said Jackson will grow because of the quality of its school system.

“Don’t fail them by not giving them the resources,” he said.

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