School officials further outlined a 2011-12 budget proposal on Monday night that will be considered for final adoption at the Board of Education's March 28 meeting, before being placed on the ballot for the school election scheduled for April 27.
Township Business Administrator Nick Markarian stressed that the proposed $82.4-million budget was drawn up as school officials tried to juggle several unknown factors.
For example, Markarian noted the district still is in the midst of negotiating an unresolved teacher's contract with the Bernards Township Education Association. The overdue contract, when settled, would be retroactive to July 2010.
Prior to the meeting, Denise Graff, co-president of the BTEA, said the district's teachers' union and the township had been assigned a labor factfinder to help move along stalled negotiations. However, she said no definite date has been set for a meeting.
Meanwhile, the school board has so far assigned an increase of about $777,000 in state aid for next year—up to about $1.6 million from about $848,000 for 2010-11—to add to a capital improvements budget for projects such as fixing leaky roofs in the district's buildings.
However, members of the public— some of whom had spoke at the —asked why at least part of that anticipated $777,000 increase couldn't be used to reinstate the nine-period day at the high school, which last had been reduced to eight periods as school officials searched for areas to cut costs.
"It seems there is money if we really want to put it back," parent Amy Haskel said. "We are seeing the $360,000 can be found." Haskel, and some other speakers, said the nine-period day allows students to take more Advanced Placement courses as well as electives such as art and music.
UPDATED: In response to a question of whether the high school's students already have completed their schedules for next year, and whether it would be potentially possible to switch back to a nine-period day, Schools Superintendent Valerie Goger said on Thursday: "The counselors have through today to catch up with students who were absent and finish up their entrance of course selections into the system. Most have already completed this chore. Students have until the 25th of March to make changes and then we will begin the scheduling process.
Goger added in the email: "It would be very difficult to revert back to the nine period schedule, but it is possible to do. We do not have the ability to schedule a nine and eight period schedule in tandem, although some have commented that they thought our system was capable of doing that. Only one schedule can be built at a time."
At Monday's meeting, Haskel added she doesn't understand why the district intends to cut the positions of eight teachers at the high school, the result of cutting a period, when next year will be the start of a three-year "bubble" of increased enrollment with more students coming up through the middle school. She said the district might need to hire back some of those teachers, or others, to teach those additional students.
Goger said at the Monday meeting that the district actually would save $500,000 through the one-period reduction beyond the first year, when the school system would still be picking up unemployment costs for laid-off teachers. She also said it is a misconception that class sizes will increase because of the move to an eight-period day.
Board members have stated they want to come up with a program that can be sustained into future years, even if state aid fluctuates. Last year, the amount of state aid had dropped sharply from the previous amount of more than $3 million.
Board member Susan McGowan said school officials want to come up with a budget that can be sustainable in future years under the state's new 2-percent cap on spending increases, "rather hemorraghing programs each year." The district also had reduced the full-day kindergarten program until parents raised $420,000 to preserve the full-day program through next year, with some contribution to the following year.
But Fred Douglis, another resident, said the board's stated rationale for cutting one period at the high school next fall doesn't make sense to him. "We have the nine periods right now. We are cutting [one period] in case we don't get it [necessary funding] next year," he said.
"Years ago, when you went from nine to eight periods, you switched right back," Douglis said.
Board President Susan Carlsson said school officials are still working on the scheduling processes to make it easier for students to take such electives as music and art in the coming school year.
School officials added they will abandon a previous proposal to transfer one guidance counselor from the high school to middle school for next year, and will instead hire a counselor for the middle school while keeping the number of guidance counselors consistent at Ridge.
Parent Michele Cappola was among those who praised that decision, as well as the board's stated intentions at the meeting to reinstate honors-level classes at the junior level, instead of just offering Advance Placement courses. She said she also agreed with a proposal by the board to possibly eliminate mid-terms at the high school next year.
Eliminating midterms would give two weeks of additional instructional time to students during the year, and also would reduce stress for students, Board member Bev Cwerner had said earlier in the meeting.
Cappola also urged the public to pass the budget, even if residents disagreed with some of the board's decision. "If you vote no, you are only going to hurt the students more," she said.
Another resident, Jim Durkin, had earlier reminded school officials that many residents still are losing jobs, or taking salary freezes and cuts in a poor economy. He urged the board to look for ways to cut "non-classroom expenses."
Markarian declined earlier in the day to estimate the impact of the proposed budget on the local school tax rate, saying he will wait until the document is approved by the county superintendent's office.
In other business, the board and public heard additional details about the county's proposal to install solar panels on school properties. A separate story will follow.