HAMMONTON - The Hammonton Board of Education introduced a $44.4 million budget Monday night that, if passed, would keep the tax rate level but could result in the elimination of 38 jobs.
The $44,403,388 budget is a decrease of more than $252,000 from last year's budget, but the amount to be raised by taxes will increase by $119,346. Still, the school board announced the district's tax rate would remain $2.038 per $100 of assessed value for the fourth straight year.
The budget cuts 38 jobs - 7 percent of its 514-member staff - a reduction in spending on school supplies and extracurricular activities, and the elimination of sports such as swimming, winter track, winter cheerleading and golf. All middle school and freshman sports also will be eliminated.
Board of Education President Loretta Rehmann explained to an auditorium full of teachers, staff, local leaders, parents and staff that raising taxes to save jobs and programs was "not an option."
"We can't, in good conscience, ask (the taxpayers) to pay more when they have less," she said.
But the crowd overwhelmingly spoke out against the staffing and funding cuts, most insisting that raising taxes was not only the acceptable thing to do - it was the right thing to do.
Hammonton Education Association President Judy Shaner told the board that taxpayers should share the burden of the current economic crisis with the educators.
"It's their children we're educating. It's their town they want people to come into," she said. "We need to think about what's best for everyone."
Shaner also denounced the Board of Education's recommended solution of a districtwide wage freeze, saying that not getting a 4.7 percent raise this year would eventually end up costing a first-year teacher a total of about $250,000 in salary and pension.
Many students spoke up to save their teachers, while parents spoke up to save the extracurricular programs their children love.
Mayor Steve DiDonato was the board of education's lone sympathizer, praising board members' hard work and asking the teachers union to agree to the wage freezes.
"Let's work together, or we will all die on the vine," said DiDonato, who recently informed 10 municipal workers that they could lose their jobs due to budget cuts.
After the public portion of the meeting, it was clear that 11/2 hours of emotional pleas did little to change anything, as the budget passed easily.
Board member Eric Weiss said shortly before the vote that he thought that the budget crisis would either "bring the school district together or could rip (it) apart."
"Apparently it has ripped us apart," he said.
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