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Despite Increase in State Aid, Eight-Period Day Remains Planned for High School Next Year

Official public hearing and adoption of proposed budget set for March 28.

The Board of Education on Monday introduced a budget for the 2011-12 school year and discussed preliminary figures in a spending plan that will be outlined more fully for the public before its potential adoption on Monday, March 28. 

The roughly outlined $82,432,885 proposal to run the district's six schools next year can be changed at any time up until the budget is adopted, Board Member Susan McGowan said. Like Monday night, the next meeting is again scheduled to be held in the auditorium.

The planned budget would stay within the state's 2 percent cap on increases, according to the school district's business administrator, Nick Markarian.

However, several board members confirmed after hearing questions from the public that the board has no intention of reviving the nine-period day at Ridge High School. The board already had voted to eight periods for 2011-12 in anticipation of receiving the same level of state aid as for 2010-11.

Instead, under Gov. Chris Christie's budget proposal, it was on Feb. 23 announced that Bernards schools will receive $1,625,312 next year—an increase of $777,421 from the 2010-11 allotment of $847,891.

Those figures are supposed to be firm, Markarian said earlier on Monday. But he and other school officials said at the meeting those figures are not guaranteed for this year—and certainly not for years going forward.

Markarian said during his presentation that the school district considers the additional $777,000 in aid promised for next year as "non-recurring," meaning the money can't be counted on for the future.

That money would be part of a $3.4-million capital account set up next year to handle necessary building improvements throughout the district, such as leaking roofs, according to Markarian's presentation.

Board members said during their comments that they don't want to return the $360,000 in estimated savings by cutting staff to go to an eight-period day to the budget, only to later find out that aid will be lower than expected, or the budget is again voted down.

"It's still a tough economy out there," Board President Susan Carlsson said. "There's no guarantee the budget will pass." 

Along with last year's state aid cut, the district was forced to absorb another $800,000 reduction after this year's proposed budget was defeated at the polls last April.

Board members said they don't want to reinstate a program and then find that it has to be cut again when final figures are in place for next year.

But some parents say they would like to use the money the district has received to keep the nine-period day, or at least save the jobs of a few science teachers.

Resident and parent Fred Douglis urged the board not to cancel school programs this year in anticipation that the funds might not be available another year.

"Why don't we keep things instead for this year?" he said. "You are closing the door on things we could actually keep."

Another parent, Vita Caravias, urged the board to use some of the money to keep some of the science teachers who now are slated to lose their jobs. She said some of those talented teachers will be gone when others who are nearing retirement age leave the high school.

"If we keep them for one year, it will make a huge difference for these kids," she said of science teachers.

During his presentation, Markarian referred several times to a board goal to come up with a school program that can be "sustainable" on reduced funding into future years.

School board members did agree they may look at hiring another guidance counselor rather than shifting a guidance counselor from the high school to middle school next fall.

But several spoke of the need to make repairs such as fixing roofs. "It's really scary how much needs to be fixed and how much has been deferred," Board Member Robin McKeon said. "If we put it off, we are going to be paying more in the future," she said.

Resident Douglas Wicks, however, brought up again his contention that the district should pursue the contractor who put up the roofs and, he said, may have failed to use proper materials. Repairs on some of those roofs should be covered for up to 25 years, he said.

Another resident, Greg Healy, questioned an architect's report that estimated a cost of $500,000 to replace 250 doors in various school buildings.

Board members said they anticipate further discussion on the budget to come up again at the next board meeting, set for next Monday, March 14 at the Oak Street School at 7 p.m.

BR Mom March 14, 2011 at 11:47 AM
AP classes are taught at the pace of a college course, and as such, it DOES seem reasonable to put more students in an AP class than in a regular class. The students in the AP classes are signing up for the challenge and rigor that the class offers, and a larger class size should not be an issue for them.
Fred Douglis March 14, 2011 at 12:02 PM
BR Mom, I don't know that the comparison with a college-level class is entirely appropriate. I agree that the students should be able to deal with larger class sizes than they might otherwise, within reason. But in the college environment there are a lot of other things we don't have: teaching assistants, office hours (something the extra period currently allows for but we're basically losing), etc. LisaB said it was unfair to both the students and the teachers, and you said the students should suck it up. I think the students but especially the teachers are in a bad position when the course size increases too much.
Lisa Winter March 14, 2011 at 01:04 PM
LisaB - I just want to say something about the Second Question and your question "Are we sure there is absolutely no way to find this money by reducing amounts budgeted to other items?" Here are two things about our district: 1. we know our cost per pupil is well below the state average and below most of the schools we compare ourselves to. 2. our district frequently asked for cap waivers from the state when our costs rose higher than the state budget cap. (This is permission to raise the budget beyond the cap - no longer allowed.) The last time our district asked for a waiver, in 2009, we were told by the county Superintendent to "get ready to have your budget gone through with a fine tooth comb down in Trenton, because the DOE doesn't want to give waivers to any district." The DOE looked for any costs savings it could find in the budget in order to deny our district the cap waiver. So guess what happened: the state offered our district $2 million in cap waivers and said "you really need it". We were one of a very small number of districts in NJ to be offered cap waivers that year. The BOE ended up taking only $800,000 of the $2 million. That cap waiver request was two years ago - we've lost over $6 million since then. Is it really likely that there are lots of costs savings available to our district right now? That's why I think we need a second question - we need to at least try to get more funding to our school district.
Laura March 14, 2011 at 01:45 PM
LisaB raises good questions about the feasibility of a second question. The political climate being what it is, it will be difficult enough to get the budget passed (which already includes a tax increase) without adding a second question, which might even further galvanize the anti-increase voters. With all due respect, that the DOE in Trenton found no excess in the district's budget is about as convincing as Imelda Marcos's stylist saying she really needed all those shoes.
Lisa Winter March 14, 2011 at 02:13 PM
Laura - good point about the political climate - I know it's a concern. Certainly no one wants their taxes raised ever. Regarding the DOE's examining our budget - it wasn't just the DOE - it was the Executive County Superintendent for Somerset County who also reviewed our budget. These County Superintendent's were established and charged with finding cost savings in their county's schools - that was their primary job. You might remember the political climate at that point - Gov. Corzine had just given all NJ schools an increase in state aid, and he was determined that property taxes would not rise under his watch, and so wanted to stop giving school districts cap waivers. Is it really impossible to believe that perhaps we have an efficient school district and perhaps there aren't lots of cost savings to be found if only the Board and Administration could be more "creative"?

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