Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Under revised budgets, districts make do with much less

In Cherry Hill, Mount Misery is back, but four Spanish teachers and two reading coaches are out. In Rancocas Valley, an adult-education program that lasted a half-century appears to be truly gone.

In Cherry Hill, Mount Misery is back, but four Spanish teachers and two reading coaches are out.

In Rancocas Valley, an adult-education program that lasted a half-century appears to be truly gone.

And in Lenape Regional, the fates of some 400 district workers who received layoff notices are now in the state education commissioner's hands.

Throughout South Jersey, school districts are trying to figure how to make do with even less in budgets battered by multiple rounds of cuts.

Last Wednesday was the deadline for municipal officials to approve school tax levies for the almost 59 percent of districts whose voters rejected budgets last month. While firm data were not yet available, it appears that most heeded the will of the taxpayers - at least in spirit - and reduced the levies. In many cases, that will mean lower tax increases than called for in the defeated budgets.

The Legislature could still reject Gov. Christie's nearly $820 million formula aid cut and find more money for schools by the July 1 deadline to pass the state budget. But few district officials are banking on that.

In many districts, township officials recommended specific cuts to go with the levy reductions. Those suggestions are not binding.

Some municipal officials tried to send a message.

In Cinnaminson, the Township Committee cut the schools levy by $1.24 million and called on the superintendent to forgo his wage increase. Committee members also urged cutting one of two secretaries in the superintendent's office and eliminating two supervisors or the assistant superintendent of instruction.

"Residents have been telling me they're appalled by bloated administrative salaries, and they're right," Mayor Anthony Minniti said in a written statement.

Superintendent Salvatore Illuzzi, who will make $204,000 in the coming school year, said the district wasn't taking any of the suggestions.

"The cuts have no basis in the reality of how a school district operates," said Illuzzi, noting retirements and insurance savings would cover most of the levy reduction.

Regarding his salary, Illuzzi said he and district staff are looking at creating a fund to which they would contribute that would be earmarked for rehiring laid-off colleagues.

In Cherry Hill, the district was hit with a $2.5 million levy reduction, and township officials urged cutting what they deemed bloated administrative salaries. Mayor Bernie Platt observed that Superintendent David Campbell makes $100,000 more a year than the governor.

District officials didn't make the $800,000 administrative cut that the town officials urged, but they did slice nearly $300,000, along with several other economic moves, including reducing another seven positions on top of the approximately 90 already slated for elimination. Even before the levy reduction, Cherry Hill lost close to $13 million in current- and next-year state formula aid.

With the township's cut, the tax levy will increase 2.26 percent, instead of 4 percent in the defeated budget. Property taxes for the owner of the typical $140,000 home will go up $83.68 a year.

Once again, the district managed to save the popular sixth-grade trip to Mount Misery, which costs $175,000 a year.

In some cases, districts can appeal their municipally imposed cuts to the state education commissioner, but usually, few do. This year, "there might well be more appeals," said Frank Belluscio, New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman.

The state commissioner also sets levies when a municipality fails to act on a rejected budget or, in the case of regional districts, when the municipalities do not agree.

The latter is Lenape Regional High School District's situation. Seven of its eight municipalities - all but Mount Laurel - agreed on a $1.08 million levy cut.

All district employees, including the teachers, have agreed to wage freezes for a $2.3 million savings. District officials are hoping that shared sacrifice will help spare further deep cuts from the state and allow the recall of some of the 400 staff members who got layoff notices.

"There are a lot of jobs that are going to be lost if there are many other cuts," Superintendent Emily Capella said.

Not all districts had their levies cut.

One spared was North Hanover, which serves many families from McGuire Air Force Base and, therefore, receives a substantial amount of federal aid. However, to qualify for that aid, the district's tax rate has to be comparable to those of other area districts, according to Superintendent Richard J. Carson.

Although voters rejected the levy, municipal officials let it stand because lowering it could have endangered future federal aid, he said.

In some districts, schools and municipal leaders managed to work cooperatively.

This year, Haddon Heights was hit with a triple whammy - two rounds of state aid cuts and a huge spike in special-education costs. Municipal officials kept the levy reduction to $205,000.

"They were very, very concerned about the educational program for children in the schools," district business administrator Lisa Palmer said. "They were trying to balance the needs of all the taxpayers."

The Eastern Regional high schools district had its levy cut by $450,000, but municipal officials also requested that the district restore four of 26 clubs eliminated in the failed budget, according to business administrator Fred Wright. Those restored clubs are the Key Club, mock trial, debate, and theater.

He said the district also is looking at a pay-to-play fee for athletics, which could restore golf, winter track, bowling, and swimming.

Still out is Little Vikings, a popular program that teaches high schoolers about running a preschool while providing the service to community children at a relatively low cost. Some local residents have been pushing to keep it going.

"This program is worth so much more than just money for us," said Christine Beswick, whose daughter Ava, 3, is in the program. "It's really such a unique experience not only for our kids but the high school students, too."

Since the budgets' defeats, the need for further cuts has persuaded more teachers and other staff to go for jobs-sparing pay freezes and other concessions.

Last week, Palmyra announced that its teachers and administrators had approved a pay freeze to save the jobs of all nine teachers slated to be laid off.

The Rancocas Valley Regional School District's budget was defeated in all five of its municipalities, even the three slated for tax decreases. Then the towns agreed to cut the district's levy by $400,000.

To make up for that loss, the district's teachers and nonunion staff will take a one-month wage freeze, the administrators will take furloughs, and all have agreed to contribute to health costs, according to business administrator Robert Sapp.

Still, the cuts the district made before the levy hit are far-ranging. They include teacher and staff positions; a 50-year-old adult evening program; some courtesy busing; 17 assistant coaches; equipment and supplies; bowling and winter track; and cheerleaders and band at away games.

These are things people will feel, Sapp said. "It's all part of the high school experience," he said. "I can't imagine there not being the band and cheerleaders" at the games.