Municipal officials have cut $11.3 million from 30 local school budgets rejected by voters last month, according to resolutions filed with county Offices of Education.
The cuts range from almost $3.5 million by switching health care plans in Egg Harbor Township to $3,204 saved through the superintendent’s wage freeze and furlough in Absecon.
By law, school budgets rejected by voters last month were sent to municipal governing bodies for review and possibly additional cuts. Wednesday was the deadline for the governing bodies to submit a final school tax levy to their county Office of Education.
School boards have 10 days to appeal cuts to the state education commissioner, but so far only one district, rural Weymouth Township in Atlantic County, has notified the county that they plan to appeal. Most school boards have already agreed to the cuts.
Only seven of the 37 defeated budgets in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties did not get additional cuts.
Maurice River Township and Downe Township in Cumberland County were already at the minimum school property tax levy the state would allow, so no additional cuts could be made. Officials in Pleasantville and Vineland cut their school budgets to the minimum tax levy.
Estell Manor’s town council opted not to make additional cuts to a budget that was already eliminating much of the small school’s staff.
Lacey Township’s committee decided to make no cuts after the staff agreed to take a wage freeze next year, one of just 31 districts statewide in which teachers have agreed to a freeze so far. Egg Harbor Township teachers agreed this week to take a partial wage freeze to save jobs.
Lacey Township school Superintendent Richard Starodub said township officials also recognized that the defeated budget did not raise property taxes next year.
“It was unusual for our budget not to pass,” he said. The wage freeze, worth about $1.3 million, will save 30 jobs that would have been eliminated.
Officials in Washington Township, Burlington County, also agreed to make no additional cuts, but the school budget hinged on teachers taking a smaller pay increase next year. On Thursday, the teachers agreed to reduce their pay raise for next year from 4 percent to 1.5 percent, Superintendent Richard Goldberg said Friday.
Some municipal governments just provided dollar amounts to cut, and others got more specific with their suggestions. Officials in Buena Vista Township and Buena Borough, who have handled many defeated budgets, provided a five-page list of proposed cuts totalling $324,344 to the Buena Regional School District, representing a 3 percent reduction. The largest item was more than $257,000 saved by privatizing the rest of the district’s busing. Smaller amounts include trimming sports supplies.
“We are asking people to take on multiple responsibilities as an alternative to eliminating jobs,” Buena Vista Township Mayor Chuck Chiarello said. “There is no solace in cutting people at the low end of the salary range, but we tried to spread the pain evenly.”
On Thursday, a Superior Court judge said the state could require school employees to contribute 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their health benefits. Some budgets already anticipated that payment in next year’s budget. The law takes effect today but applies to employees only after their current contracts expire. Employees working under expired contracts, such as in Mullica Township, will begin paying immediately.
Municipal officials got creative with the Mainland Regional budget, coming up with a plan to pay down their debt service using the interest anticipated from $40 million in bonds the district sold for school improvements. The district will cut the debt service by $190,000 and use another $85,000 of the interest to bring back freshman sports. The tax rate will drop by about a half a penny.
“We have the bond money in the bank now so we can use the interest it earns,” Mainland Business Administrator Kim Gniewyk said, adding that the district won’t begin spending the bulk of the money until next year.
Some districts are still grappling with how they will make their cuts. Municipal officials in Greater Egg Harbor Regional’s sending districts want another $1 million cut from the budget, a reduction of 4 percent of the tax levy. The district will switch to another health care plan, saving about $400,000, but is still working on the rest, Superintendent Steve Ciccariello said.
“We had already cut $5.5 million to get to the point where the budget was defeated,” he said, “and we’re opening a new school in September.”
A wage freeze has been discussed. Teachers are also negotiating a new contract, so many options are still undecided.
Weymouth Township’s school board and township committee were unable to come to agreement on their cuts. The committee is asking for an 8 percent cut of $166,082, cutting in half the proposed tax rate increase of 34 cents. Both sides will meet with the county superintendent next week to try to reach a solution before submitting the appeal to the education commissioner.
“We had already cut the proposed tax hike from 53 cents,” Weymouth school Superintendent Donna Van Horn said. “There’s nothing left to cut.”
The township committee’s proposed cuts include eliminating three teachers and cutting health benefits.
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