Budgets may need trimming

Given the freezing of state aid that has been proposed by Gov. James McGree-vey, school and municipal officials throughout New Jersey ought to be preparing for a challenging year.

While municipal officials should be extra cautious about spending this year, school officials in particular will be in the hot seat, as their budgets typically make up the greater piece of the property tax pie.

The preparation and passage of a school budget are never the easiest of tasks — last year many local school districts presented budgets with tax increases both big and small, and many school budgets were defeated by voters in their respective school elections. That year, most administrators, as usual, reported that their budgets were as lean as possible, and that no cuts could be made.

This year, they may have to re-evaluate their priorities and search their budgets with a finer-toothed comb.

State aid is the primary budget factor that needs either to stay the same or increase each year in order for property taxes to stay relatively stable while operating costs in the budget increase. In recent years, state aid allotments to school districts have been held relatively stable, and, therefore school tax increases have risen only slightly in the average school district.

This year could be a whole new story. And officials need to be prepared, as they will not know for certain how much state aid they will receive until sometime in March.

But a gloomy state aid picture is not the only reason why local boards of education should be on the lookout for budget reductions in the 2002-03 spending plans. Given the recession and the rising unemployment rate, their taxpayers may not be able to afford the typical tax increase this year, particularly in the many communities where school construction projects are already pumping the property tax bill.

All programs and staff expenses need to be examined to see if anything could be cut that will have the least possible effect on the quality of education. Belts are being tightened at the state level and in the private sector, and unless the state aid picture changes, school officials owe it to their communities to approach their budgets in the same fashion.