LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - Eight men huddled in the corner of the Pinelands Regional Middle School cafeteria Tuesday night decided what the Pinelands Regional School District must cut from its defeated budget - a figure that will impact the tax bills for more than 26,000 residents.
Those eight men were officials from the four municipalities that send students to the district - Bass River Township, Eagleswood Township, Little Egg Harbor Township and Tuckerton. And the huddle came during a 15-minute "halftime" of the second special meeting held to address the school district's defeated $30.2 million budget.
The result: The municipalities want the school district to cut $875,000 from the budget and to not eliminate courtesy busing, as proposed.
The Board of Education trimmed an additional $550,000 from the $30,229,171 spending plan that was rejected by voters last month prior to the first special budget meeting that was held last Thursday.
However, Little Egg Harbor Township Mayor Ray Gormley and Bass River Township Deputy Mayor Rich Bethea said they felt the budget should actually be cut by $1.2 million in order to ease the burden on their taxpayers.
But Eagleswood Township Mayor James Pine said a "realistic" number that his municipality would be comfortable with is $700,000.
Hence the huddle, which also included representatives from Tuckerton.
After the huddle broke, the men announced that they settled on $875,000. But the officials instructed the Board of Education not to cut courtesy busing and to do the "best it can" to preserve seventh and eighth grade athletics, which were also in danger of being cut in the district's initial revised budget.
The municipal officials said they felt an agreement had to be made.
"Our main focus was to try to keep it out of the state's hands if at all possible," Gormley said. "Because here, we have a say in what gets cut. But if it goes to the state, it could get messy."
If the towns and the Board of Education did not agree, that's exactly where the budget would go next.
"If we don't agree, it's done," said Pine, adding that the state likely would cut more than $3 million from the budget - including funds for courtesy busing. "It's my understanding that anything outside of a ‘thorough and efficient' education would be cut. And to not have courtesy busing in our rural communities is unacceptable."
And Tuckerton Borough Council President George "Buck" Evans warned that if the budget went to the state, "that would cut a lot of jobs."
Stephen Brennan, the school district's business administrator, said the additional cuts would not result in any layoffs. Instead, $525,000 would come via staff reductions through attrition, $50,000 would come through transportation routing and $300,000 would come from two separate reserve funds.
Brennan said he was hoping to hang on to the $300,000 in reserve funds in order to help protect the district from possible future additional state aid cuts.
"We're not happy with the cuts we have to make," said Brennan, adding that he did not feel they put the district in the best position to deal with the difficult years predicted to be ahead. "But we will do our best with what we've got."
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