VINELAND - Board of Education member Brian DeWinne defied a threat of ethics censure Wednesday and publicized his plan to balance the city school budget without layoffs or program cuts.
DeWinne, an accountant by trade, proposed several spending cuts, including capping overtime at $500,000 for the year, as well as using $5 million in projected surplus that school officials have not previously indicated would be available. He said school Administrator Kevin Franchetta told him last month the district surplus was projected to be $20 million for this fiscal year, although he stressed those numbers could change.
In contrast, school officials informed the public that only $12,640,464 would be available in surplus. The proposed school budget calls for using $12 million of that money.
The district collected about $5 million in surplus each of the past two fiscal years, bringing the district's surplus up to $13 million, DeWinne said. The surplus was so large that Gov. Chris Christie seized that $13 million from the district earlier this year, deeming it "excess surplus." DeWinne expected that history would repeat itself and continue producing sizable surpluses, at least for this fiscal year.
As DeWinne began to lay out his plan, board Solicitor Robert DeSanto interrupted and cautioned him that he proceeded "at his own risk" of ethics charges. DeWinne said he felt it was his duty to inform the public of a way to balance the budget without having to force layoffs and program cuts.
"I believe that I'm doing everything that I'm supposed to be doing as (someone) elected by the taxpayers," DeWinne said.
In addition to using the surplus, DeWinne proposed $437,166 worth of personnel cuts through retirements and eliminating vacant positions and cited $1.3 million that would be saved through an anticipated reduction of health benefits, an idea included in the budget. He then proposed increasing district funding for basic skills programs, technology, athletics, extracurricular programs such as band and drama, and intramurals and class trips by $1,649,936.
As introduced by board members, the district's proposed $190 million budget calls for no tax increase but cuts 82 positions and some school programs, notably the city's adult education program.
Numerous people approached DeWinne after the meeting to shake his hand and thank him for publicizing his plan despite the threat of censure.
Board President Frank Giordano informed DeWinne that ethics charges would be brought against him by the county superintendent because DeWinne discussed the broad concepts of his plan with The Press of Atlantic City for an article last week, DeWinne said. When contacted last week, DeWinne was hesitant to discuss his plan but laid out a broad concept when specifically asked about it.
Giordano declined comment after the meeting, and DeSanto recommended that he not speak to the media about DeWinne's plan.
"I want to have a conversation with Brian," Giordano said. "His points are all well taken."
Other board members were less reserved.
Board Vice President Allan Bernardini criticized DeWinne for voting for the budget and then coming out later to share his plan publicly, rather than in the board's finance committee, of which DeWinne is a member.
"He chose to do that publicly," Bernardini said. "I just don't think that is right. You have to operate within your committee."
DeWinne said he initially spoke about the idea within his committee and sent it to other board members, but a week after doing so he still had no response. Also, he cited Giordano's assertions that the budget was a "fluid document" that could be changed, which prompted him to begin looking at ways to improve it. He would have done so earlier, he said, but board members were given little time to review the budget before having to adopt it.
"Sometimes you need time to think of a plan," DeWinne said.
Board members Tom Ulrich and Frank DiGiorgio thanked DeWinne for publicizing his ideas, and Ulrich said DeWinne had the right to do so.
"I may not agree with every item on Mr. DeWinne's list, but I agree there should be a forum," Ulrich said.
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