Rumors are circulating that the state aid for school districts could be good or disastrous this year, and the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District is working to prepare for both scenarios.
Board member Jeffrey Brookner, chair of the finance committee, said at Tuesday’s meeting that there are some rumors and concerns that there could be some major cuts in this year’s budget.
“Three years ago when the governor’s first budget reduced state aid and required districts to apply excess surplus to state aid, we were forced to use taxpayer money and we lost $7 million in state aid and more than 100 staff members,” he said. “There is some concern that the same thing could happen this year.”
But, Brookner emphasized, these are all just rumors, and no real information is available.
At this point, Brookner said, the schedule is for the governor to give his address on Feb. 26, with detailed state aid numbers available Feb. 28. From there, he said, there is a board meeting scheduled for March 5, before a tentative budget is required to be sent to the county superintendent by March 7.
“This is a very tight time frame, and the committee decided that just in case the rumors we are hearing at the unofficial level escalate and we become more concerned, we will schedule another finance committee meeting for Feb. 21,” he said. “But that will be before the governor’s address, and that’s only if there are more rumors.”
Superintendent of Schools Michael Schilder said that at this point there has been no definite indication that there will be a problem with the state aid numbers, just speculation about what the change might be.
“We have heard nothing from the county superintendent, there is just speculation right now, and maybe it’s healthy speculation, but we don’t want the public to think it’s a done deal,” he said. “Last time, we were getting clear indications at this time to get ready and it was coming from the governor. We are not getting that now, so hopefully this will not be a problem.”
As for the tax levy, Brookner said, the latest draft of the budget calls for a 1.86 percent increase.
Brookner said there are three issues the finance committee is focused on, centered on the capital reserves, the target tax levy and the possibility of having floater personnel available in the budget.
In terms of extra personnel, last year’s budget called for 12 floating positions that were not allocated to particular grades, but could be put where needed.
“We always need to bring in teachers, and this allowed us to be aggressively low on where we slotted teachers,” Brookner said. “Last year we used six out of 12, so we were more generous than we needed to be, so money from the other salaries rolled over into surplus.”
This year, Brookner said, they have a plan for seven additional teachers as floater positions.
“I think this is probably closer to what excess we will need,” he said. “Some feel we shouldn’t have allocated at all, some said we didn’t have enough.”
Schilder said last year was the first time they started instituting those floater positions, and that was done because of issues encountered in the years before. Prior to that year, he said, the board would approve additional teachers as needed, so they were often scrambling to find people.
“Instead of scrambling to do that and facing so many large class sizes, we had the 12 positions, and now we have scaled it back to seven,” he said.
And three of those positions, Schilder said, are already probably going to be used to handle compliance with special education.
“Years ago, we wouldn’t routinely put these in, but at least one or two teachers would have to be found usually,” he said. “Instead of scrambling to find money, we added these floaters to get a little bit of a cushion in case we have a spike in students.”
Brookner said he believes it is important to budget for these floaters, particularly after they were forced to slash the number of teachers to the bone when they lost so much aid years ago.
“Some classes were very large and ended up short in a lot of situations, and we had to beg, borrow and steal to cover those,” he said. “Then we decided we didn’t want to be stuck in that situation and we didn’t want to throw money to every circumstance so we decided to have a back-up pool. I think going smaller that that is exposing us to a risk.”
But board member Ann Marie Mead said she is very concerned about wasting taxpayer money for the possibility of teachers.
“If there was a need to put more teachers in the classrooms, I don’t understand why it wasn’t done this year,” she said. “I don’t understand why we need seven more, it doesn’t make sense.”
But Schilder said that part of those are for handling individual education plans for students who are required to be in special education classes that allow for only a certain number of people per teacher.
“If we have a student who moves in from another district and creates a tipping point because we can only have eight in a class of that disability and it tips to nine, we have to get another teacher,” he said. “That scenario is one that happens far too often, we get move-ins and we are scrambling.”
“Special education is growing faster than regular education,” he added.
In addition, according to assistant superintendent Cheryl Dyer, they would have added additional English and math teachers at the high school this year because of uncomfortably large class sizes, but were unable to because of late scheduling.
“We put the high school scheduling on a faster track this year to know about class sizes in advance and make adjustments,” she said. “Of the four floaters for general education, I think only two are floaters, and one will be for English and one for math, based on what we dealt with this year.”
As for capital reserves, Brookner said, there has been discussion among committee members about the importance of putting more money into the reserves.
“If we were to project anticipated capital needs over the next three years and compare that to money already there, the concern is we are cutting too close and not leaving anything for emergencies,” he said.
As for the capital budget, the current sum of money in the district allows for about $2.125 million worth of capital projects, and there are another $4.5 million of capital projects that need to be done in the next few years, Brookner said.
“We have currently $2 million to cover that, and the gap would have to come out of the normal operating budget or other contributions to capital,” he said. “I think this is the biggest financial problem facing the district.”
The biggest project that needs to get done, Schilder said, is the repair of Basilone Field and the baseball fields because they are becoming a safety issue for players.
Board of education president Patrick Breslin said he agrees that more money needs to be allocated.
“I have always been nervous about where our capital reserve sits, and I’ve always thought we are one boiler away from catastrophe,” he said. “My personal opinion is we need to do even more to see what possible capital items we can expect in a three-year span of time and keep the reserve close to being able to manage it.”
The next budget presentation will be held at the Feb. 26 meeting at 8 p.m. at the Harmon V. Wade Administration Building.