LOWER TOWNSHIP - The proposed $29.5 million Lower Cape May Regional School District budget is down by 4 percent, but $2 million in state aid cuts may still lead to layoffs.

"That's the biggest thing we're trying to overcome right now. We have a number of people retiring, and the vast majority of our staff reductions will hopefully come with retirements," Superintendent Jack Pfizenmayer said.

The budget would not increase taxes in two of the district's three municipalities. The tax levy would decrease in West Cape May by $3,429 but would increase in Lower Township by $62,745. In Cape May, the district would collect an additional $685,131.

Union leader Frank Toth, of the Lower Cape May Regional Education Association, said he anticipates staff and program cuts. He said the union, which represents 172 teachers at the Richard M. Teitelman School and Lower Cape May Regional High School, is considering Gov. Chris Christie's proposals to freeze salaries and contribute more toward benefits.

Toth, however, said there is no guarantee such a move would save jobs. The union, which made concessions in its last contract, could agree to it, but Toth said this is "just the beginning" of state cuts to schools. Christie is looking to reduce tax-levy increases to 2.5 percent per year, compared with the current ceiling of 4 percent per year.

"We can't negotiate with class sizes or staffing. They are non-negotiable items. What the governor and the commissioner of education asked, certainly we will consider, but it's a pretty tough request. We negotiated these salaries in good faith," Toth said.

Teachers in 2010-11 are due salary increases of 4.95 percent under the last year of a three-year contract. Teacher salaries have increased 4.9, 4.8, 5.3, 5.3 and 5.4 percent in the past five years, repsectively. Toth said Cape May's K-6 district just negotiated a three-year contract with raises of 4 percent per year. Lower Township's elementary school district is negotiating a new contract, but officials there did not return phone calls over the past week to discuss it.

Pfizenmayer said a salary freeze would save jobs but agreed more cuts could be coming next year anyway.

"We have to prepare for next year in case it does go to 2.5 percent," he said.

The 2010-11 budget is down to $29,485,431 from $30,725,191. Business Administrator Frank Onorato said state aid dropped from $10,158,995 to $8,776,961, or about $1.4 million. The district also lost $546,181 when the state claimed from districts surplus funds higher than 2 percent of their budgets.

"They took excess surplus. It was money from the taxpayers," Onorato said.

Toth said that money could have helped reduce taxes or went toward unforeseen problems, such as a leaking roof.

Pfizenmayer said years ago the state also agreed to help pay off debt for an addition but now is reducing that pledge by $47,819.

The district will save money through the closing of Our Lady Star of the Sea School in Cape May, whose transportation costs Lower Cape May Regional helped fund. The state also is considering letting districts keep school buses for 15 years instead of 12, which would save Lower Cape May $250,000 per year for the next three years.

Pfizenmayer said the district is trying to maintain all academic and extracurricular activities and programs but warned that class sizes may increase and some coaching positions may be trimmed. Teachers also may have to teach more subjects.

Some teaching positions have already been reduced as the district has seen enrollment decline by about 5 percent over the past decade. The district has about 1,700 students, Pfizenmayer said.

"We haven't been replacing teachers the last few years," he said.

The budget is mainly funded by taxes, state aid and surplus. With state aid down and excess surplus eliminated, the total tax levy will increase from $18,163,417 to $18,907,864.

The tax levy varies by municipality. Onorato said the state determines funding levels for the different municipalities in regional districts based on property values, numbers of students and other factors.

Toth, a shop teacher in the district, said any staff reductions would likely begin with non-tenured teachers. He said morale is low, especially for young teachers with families.

"This is my 25th year here, and this is the most severe I can remember," he said.

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What's next

A public hearing on the budget is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 31, at the school, 687 Route 9, Erma. A public vote will be held April 20.