New Jersey's passion for quality education and lower property taxes clashed last week as towns worked to resolve school budgets that voters rejected in April.

"The Moorestown piggy bank is empty. People are leaving this town," said Stanley Ralph, one of more than 500 residents who attended a hearing there last Monday.

In Winslow Township, an even larger crowd turned out Wednesday to protest 160 staff layoffs, approved later that night by the school board. More cuts are feared as the Township Committee takes up the budget this week.

"You will be hurting many good people and children," said an emotional Thomas Cocco, father of an autistic preschooler whose teachers face layoffs. "Find the money to keep these people working."

South Jersey voters approved about 73 percent of school budgets in April. In the 24 towns where they rejected them, municipal governments have until May 19 to decide whether to make cuts or let budgets stand.

A parade of teachers and parents in Winslow and Moorestown praised individual schools and linked each town's property values to a successful district. The challenge before town governments this week is finding a sustainable fiscal formula.

"We have no interest in cutting the quality of education," Moorestown Councilman John Button said. "But the tax dollar in this town is too high. It's driving people out."

The average Moorestown property-tax bill is $10,185, or $848 a month, according to township records. The school district share is 62 percent.

Continual gloomy fiscal forecasts from Trenton further complicate the task of municipalities, Moorestown Mayor Daniel Roccato said. Gov. Corzine recently predicted a state budget deficit of $1.5 billion to $2 billion by the end of June 2010, meaning he will have to make more cuts or raise taxes.

"We're a very affluent community, but that doesn't make us immune from the macroeconomy," Roccato said. "We don't see any relief coming from Trenton. We have to do the heavy lifting ourselves."

In Moorestown and elsewhere, representatives from township councils and school boards meet frequently in subgroups to resolve budgets by the deadline. Moorestown, which aims to reduce the $68.8 million budget by 1 to 2 percent, will hold another public meeting tonight at the middle school.

Burlington Township identified $217,806 in savings on Tuesday that will reduce its defeated budget almost to last year's level, district business administrator MaryAnn Bell said.

"The school board realizes the council is put in a difficult position having to review the budget," she said. "Most of the cuts taken by the council were reviewed by the [school] board prior to final adoption."

Only four residents have attended Burlington Township's two public meetings so far, she said. Final budget adoption is scheduled for tomorrow.

Evesham council members have hired an auditor from Cape May County to help find ways to reduce the school district's failed budget, which included a 3.8 percent tax increase, higher than those of most districts this year.

Seeking outside help isn't a common practice, but other towns have done it, said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

The Township Council has no number in mind for how much the district should reduce its budget, Councilman John McKenna said. But the consultant will sit in at meetings with municipal and school officials, then outline specific recommendations for potential cuts, he said.

"My personal opinion is, you need to keep the noise outside the room, the noise being personal opinions, emotions, which a lot of people have because . . . they get worried when they think bad things are happening, or political things are going to happen," he said.

More common is the practice in Washington Township, Gloucester County, where the town auditor is searching for savings the school board might have missed. The school board there already had laid off 29 staff members - the first job cuts in a dozen years - when voters defeated the budget.

Schools Superintendent Cheryl Simone has said she hopes the narrow margin of defeat - about 60 votes - dissuades council members from making drastic cuts.

In Winslow, the school board went ahead with 160 staff cuts called for in a $93 million budget that voters rejected. Residents also defeated a school-improvement bond in March that was intended, in part, to accommodate burgeoning enrollment.

"There's got to be another way," said Kathleen Laverty-Segrest, president of the Winslow Township ParaProfessionals Organization, which represents the lowest-paid workers. "I'd like to see all the union presidents sit down with the board and administration and go over the budget line by line."

Contact staff writer Cynthia Henry at 856-779-3970 or chenry@phillynews.com.
Inquirer staff writer Maya Rao contributed to this article.