HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — In a budget hearing packed with about 200 district teachers holding signs saying “Respect” and “Settle Now,” the Hamilton Township Board of Education narrowly passed its 2013-14 budget Tuesday by a 5-4 vote.

The budget raises a tax levy of $19.6 million on a total budget of $48.1 million. That’s a two percent increase from last year’s $19.2 million levy. It means a 2.5 cent increase per $100 valuation in taxes just for the Hamilton Township preK-8 schools with 3,200 students. For a home assessed at $100,000, that means an additional $25 per year in the tax bill.

Superintendent Michelle Capellutti said the budget maintains all current programs. Voting against it were board President Ann Erickson, John Saccinelli, Amelia Francis, and Peggy Capone, who made her opposition clear.

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“When you see what is going on in the country, parents are crying they’ve lost their job. It is extreme,” Capone said. “If we can’t say no now, when will we ever?”

The few members of the public who spoke encouraged the board to find ways to cut spending and not increase the budget at all.

“We lost half our company four years ago. In the coming weeks we may lose another quarter of the company,” said Mays Landing resident Harry Rogers, operations manager at Tote Services in Moorestown. “But (government employees) demand more and more. You’re not paying attention to what other people are going through.”

The hundreds of teachers in the audience, however, were there to both support the budget and urge the board to settle a new contract. They were also there to ask that the board not eliminate three literacy coaches and a kindergarten to first grade Teacher of Social Success. The positions were retained.

Literacy coaches teach teachers the best way to improve literacy. Board members and staff agreed that, during the four years the literacy coaches have been in place, reading scores have dramatically improved. Before the coaches, about 40 percent of students were reading at or above grade level, and now that number is more than 70 percent, said Hess School literacy coach Jennifer Farrell.

Patty Fleming, the president of the Hamilton Township Education Association, said the board has a long history of not increasing the budget, and that students have suffered as a result.

The board and the union are far apart in their proposals. Board member and chief negotiator Eric Aiken said the board has offered two percent increases per year for three years, and the union has asked for 15 percent over that time.

“The board desires a settlement,” Aiken said, adding it also values the work and educational achievements of its teachers. “But we would have preferred to negotiate at the bargaining table, not in public.”

After a meeting with a mediator in late February, the process is now going to fact finding, said Fleming. She added that Hamilton Township teachers are among the lowest-paid in the county, recently falling to 22nd of 24 in Atlantic County.

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