ESTELL MANOR - The fate of next year's school budget, and possibly the local elementary school itself, may be in City Council's hands tonight when it votes on how to revise the district's rejected spending plan.
The governing body will be looking at a budget that already provides for barely enough teachers to operate the Estell Manor School, Superintendent John Cressey said, but still requires a 23.4-cent tax rate increase in order to be fully funded.
All of the tiny district's staff members were issued preliminary layoff notices the day after the city's voters rejected the budget 317-270.
Only 8.5 positions, counting a special education instructor and nurse, can currently be funded, Cressey said, adding that the budget's proposed 11.5 positions would be necessary for a "thorough and efficient education" of the K-8 district's students.
Mayor Joseph Venezia said he would seek to reduce the rate increase by about a nickel, and would plead with the teachers union to approve a salary freeze for next year.
The union is in negotiations with the Board of Education. Union President Charles Brandt said he thinks the teachers deserve a pay increase next year but declined to say what offer the union has made to the board.
The $4.4 million budget is already 5.5 percent smaller than the previous year's spending plan, but the tax levy is 13.5 percent higher to make up for $215,683 less in state aid and $235,589 in increased costs.
Venezia said he still needs more information about how cuts could affect the school building on Cape May Avenue closing, but said talk about it in town amounted to "hype and hysteria."
"There's no way that school's going to close," Venezia said, adding that there is still debt service to be paid on it and that Buena Regional would not likely be able to fit Estell Manor's students anyway.
Nevertheless, Brandt has been waging a campaign in the city that he said is meant to raise awareness about what dramatic effects could result from further reducing the budget.
The union distributed brochures saying "Goodbye to Estell Manor's public school" and "Thanks for the memories." They ask residents to attend tonight's meeting and ask how any cuts would affect the district's children.
Brandt also parked an SUV near the school with a sign hanging off its side that reads "Estell Manor Star School Building, For Sale or Rent, Available July 1, 2010, Thanks to Governor Christie."
The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at City Hall on Cumberland Avenue.
The Board of Education will vote Thursday night on whether to accept or reject the council's recommendations. If it rejects the recommendations, the county superintendent's office or ultimately the state education commissioner would make the final decision on the district's budget.
Any consolidation proposal would have to be approved by voters, Cressey said.
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