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No one from the public made any comments and Egg Harbor Township school board members were seated 6 feet apart during their expedited meeting Tuesday, where they approved the introduction of a $151.8 million budget that includes $1.5 million to implement full-day kindergarten.

The topics would have usually drawn a crowd of residents wanting to give input, but a state-mandated school closing and suggested social distancing measures due to COVID-19 kept the public at bay. Board President Pete Castellano said the board meeting was necessary to approve the first reading of Egg Harbor Township’s 2020-21 budget before the state deadline.

“We made the call to close on Sunday, effective Tuesday, ahead of the governor’s order. However, we still had a deadline to get our preliminary budget passed and to the county by March 20, and we met that deadline,” Castellano said, adding there will be ample time for more discussion prior to the April 28 public hearing and final vote.

Boards across the state are in the middle of their budget process, with many holding meetings this month to introduce budgets to meet those deadlines.

The response to COVID-19 has put extra strain on local boards to both maintain transparency and meet deadlines. Some, with little time to prepare, went ahead with in-person meetings last week taking extra precautions while others have transitioned to virtual meetings.

The state Department of Education requires elected school board members in towns that hold November elections, such as Egg Harbor Township, to send budgets to the county superintendent by March 20. Once budgets are approved by the county, boards have until May 7 to hold a public hearing and May 14 to adopt the budget.

Lower Cape May Regional held a virtual meeting Thursday night while Somers Point’s school board continued with its public meeting to introduce its budget. In a post to its Facebook page, the Somers Point School District said there were no current guidance on any extensions to the required budget submission deadline, so the meeting would continue in public.

“There will be limited seats available since we are to practice social distancing and limiting the number of people in one location. We plan to take action at tonight’s meeting,” reads the post. “We have limited tonight’s meeting to the preliminary budget presentation and other approvals. Additional presentations and recognition will be held at a later date. Thank you, in advance, for your support as we navigate this difficult health crisis.”

Wildwood’s school board met Wednesday night and unanimously approved its $21.8 million budget for next year, with a total operating budget of $19.5 million.

Wildwood school board President Todd Kieninger said board members took precautions to keep at least 6 feet away from one another during the meeting. Kieninger said Superintendent J. Kenyon Kummings had also spoken with board members on the phone to answer questions regarding the budget proposal.

“Everybody pretty much had their own table,” he said. “Our superintendent was really on top of this thing. He had sent all the budget information ahead of time via email while taking precautions we weren’t communicating over email.”

Kieninger said meetings will become trickier going forward.

“I’m also on the Planning Board in Wildwood, and I have the same question for our solicitor and the mayor: What do we do about public meetings?” he said. “We don’t want people, obviously, coming out, exposing themselves, but it’s also a public issue they need to hear about it and express their opinions. It’s an evolving situation right now.”

Kieninger said he was happy that they were able to have unanimous approval of the budget Wednesday.

“We’re all doing the best we can, and hopefully it all ends soon,” he said.

In a video recording of Tuesday’s meeting, Castellano said they had no choice but to continue with the meeting as there wasn’t enough time to change to a virtual meeting and provide notice.

“We will do our best to keep the community involved and informed for the duration of this emergency. We will utilize all the technology at our disposal, including our website, emails and phone calls, and various social media platforms. We will also be exploring our options to hold virtual and interactive meetings. This is a work in progress, and certainly a challenge, so I don’t have specifics yet, but we will make it happen,” Castellano said Wednesday.

Egg Harbor Township has been weighing the idea of full-day kindergarten for years, but funding has made it unfeasible, until this year.

The township’s 2020-21 school budget includes $1.5 million — down from $2.8 million proposed last year — to implement the full-day program, joining the rest of the county except for Linwood in offering full-day kindergarten. Castellano said they have budgeted for 440 students in the kindergarten program based on demographic data.

“Although less than that number have signed up so far, we are confident that as the word gets out, and people know this is going to happen, registration will increase,” he said.

Next year’s Egg Harbor Township school budget totals $151.8 million, with $139.4 million to support the general operations of the school. The local tax levy is $86.6 million, with $81 million going toward the general fund and $5.6 million for debt service. The levy will increase to the 2% cap, bringing the school tax rate up by 4.4 cents, or an additional $89 a year for a home valued at $200,000.

Contact: 609-272-7251

CLowe@pressofac.com

Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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