A couple of years ago, school officials were complaining that state aid was
stuck at a flat $3.3 million or so, and that absorbing skyrocketing costs in areas like health and pension costs made it difficult to stay under the state's 4-percent cap on annual spending increases.
But from this year's vantage point, that era looks like the good old days, Board of Education members observed ruefully at last week's board meeting.
With this year's state aid a scant 15 percent of what the Bernards Township school system had received the year before, combined with other losses in aid and tax revenues, the school district is facing a "catastrophe," School Board President Susan Carlsson told the public at the Nov. 22 school board meeting.
That night, the school board voted to enact two major program cuts for the 2011-12 school year, with more cuts promised before the district can squeeze into a reduced-sized school budget for next year. A new state cap of 2 percent on tax levy increases to begin next year means that the school district can't raise local school taxes to fill in the gap, school officials said.
The Board of Education voted 7-to-1 to reduce the kindergarten day next fall from a full six-hour day to about 2 hours and 30 minutes. Under the proposed scenario, the Somerset Hills YMCA would provide a "wraparound" on-site program to extend the day for those kindergartners whose parents pay a monthly fee of about $310 for the supplemental activities.
The board estimates that cutting half the number of kindergarten classrooms filled at one time would save about $240,000 by eliminating about eight staff jobs. But that savings could be offset by about $120,000 to pay for extra bus runs to transport kindergartners during the middle of the school day, and about $16,000 to rewrite the first-grade curriculum to recognize the change in the kindergarten program.
A second cost-cutting measure will be the elimination of one instructional period at Ridge High School, resulting in a savings of about $240,000. But some parents are questioning whether that reduction will especially hurt the science labs offered in advanced science classes that are key to the high school's high performing reputation.
Moreover, school officials said at both meetings in November that the projected shortfall in the 2011-12 budget will be about $1.4 million. Other anticipated cuts could lead to the loss of at least two assistant principals in the district's four elementary schools and larger class sizes at the William Annin Middle School for grades 6-8.
"We are a high-achieving, low cost district," Board Member Susan McGowan said on Nov. 22. Some of the measures that other districts now are considering, such as outsourcing certain school maintenance services, already were put in place in the township years ago, McGowan and other school officials said.
The district's costs per pupil already are lower than the state average, according to school figures. The township's cost per pupil was $12,487 in 2009-10, almost $1,400 lower than the statewide average, according to the Board of Education.
The district began the 2010-11 school year with a calculated cost per pupil of $12,411, according to Business Administrator Nick Markarian.
District per pupil costs were low enough that in the 2008-09 school year, the state temporarily bumped aid to Bernards schools to $4.2 million, according to school figures. However, that extra $800,000 or so in aid did not continue, school officials said.
There are differing viewpoints about how the school system should dig out of this financial hole, even if no one disagrees that losing about $3.8 to $3.9 million in state aid last year was bound to have an impact on school finances.
One set of kindergarten parents, Adam and Janina Hecht, said they already have begun galvanizing parents to start an authorized fund that would allow the full-day kindergarten program to be saved.
Raising enough funds to reinstate full-day kindergarten would be far cheaper than having the parents of kindergartners pay about $3,100 a year for the "wraparound" program, Adam Hecht calculated.
"We already have a strong following of parents who are extremely eager to get together on this," Janina Hecht said. The couple has set up an email account seeking input, at firstname.lastname@example.org, she said.
Township Committeewoman Carolyn Gaziano is part of a committee made up of township and school officials that is trying to tackle the problem from another angle.
State aid cuts for this year were unfairly more severe for suburban districts, she said. Even if the state keeps its total aid figure the same, sharing the cuts more equally would restore some funding to districts such as Bernards, she said. That restored aid could mean funding for lost programs, she suggested.
Gaziano said last week that the plan is for the committee to try to join together with similar suburban school districts to approach state officials with more clout.
Some parents discussed other solutions following last week's board decision to cut kindergarten. Jen Nowack said she has a kindergartner on the way whom she will place next year in a private kindergarten rather than at Oak Street Elementary School.
"It was an amazing program," Nowack, who now has a first-grader at the Oak Street School, said of the full-day program her child had recently completed.
"It's just disappointing," Nowack said of the school board's decision to end full-day kindergarten.
Still other comments posted on the Basking Ridge Patch, including those of a reader named Shelley, observed that funding for full-day kindergarten may indeed be gone in the current economy.
"I cannot believe that kindergarten has become so important to some parents. It is KINDERGARTEN people. Your child will still go to Princeton and become a doctor going half a day. Now I guess you may have to parent for that other half, what a hardship. The age of entitlement may be coming to an end. Hooray! Maybe the age of real parenting will return," Shelley wrote.
"Up until recently, the schools were handed unlimited resources," Shelley wrote. The economy now is different, she said.
Despite the disagreement over how to deal with the financial pinch, there is a clear path for how the district came to this fork in the road.
Even before lower aid figures were announced for this year, the state withheld about $1.6 million of previously promised aid last spring as Gov. Chris Christie announced he was trying to get a handle on the state's financial crisis.
The state froze a few months' payments to those school districts in the state that had built up a surplus, with the intention that the surplus funds would be spent before state aid would be resumed.
Then came last spring's long-awaited announcement of state aid figures for 2011-12.
State aid to the Bernards Township school district, which had already wafted down to just over $3 million for the 2009-10 school year, was further cut when school officials learned that the township would receive $835,265 for 2010-11.
Carlsson said the board's tentative projections for the 2011-12 school budget assume that the district will at least receive that amount for next year, or the school's finances would take even further hits.
School officials also are counting on the successful passage of the school budget when next year's spending plan is presented to the voters next April.
That wasn't the case this last April, when voters defeated the district's proposed $86 million school budget. The result was that $800,000 was cut from the 2010-11 budget, another reduction in revenues.
In such an atmosphere, Hecht said that he forsees that parent and public groups with a particular interest will be forced to pitch in to save certain programs.
Hecht said he would approach the Bernards Township Education Foundation with a proposal to set up a dedicated fund for kindergarten.
John Stillwagon, executive director of the Bernards Township Education Foundation, said the foundation now is focusing on fundraising for 21st-century interdisciplinary programs at Ridge High School.
About two years ago, the BTEF had discussed raising funds to save full-day kindergarten and the nine-day period at the high school when board members then discussed cutting those programs to save money. But the discussion died down after the school district managed to continue funding both programs, he said.
"You have to start well beyond the term of [programs] expiring to actually have an effective strategy of doing something," Stillwagon said.
Hecht said he still intends to approach the education foundation. However, he said parents could seek to independently set up a dedicated fund to save full-day kindergarten if working through the education foundation isn't possible.
Even if that project doesn't work, Janina Hecht said she would like to see the school board keep an open mind about continuing a full-day kindergarten program with about one less school day.
Adam Hecht said he realizes the extent of the loss of funding has affected the school budget, but he believes the Board of Education and school officials owe parents a chance to give it their best shot to restore full-day kindergarten.
"There are fresh faces who are approaching this with 100 percent new enthusiasm and vigor," Hecht said.
"EduNation: A Patch Report on Our Schools" is a nationwide Patch series probing the economy's effect on our schools. For more information, see here.