EDITORIAL: Voters should support local school budgets

   Voters in Cranbury, Jamesburg and Monroe have a tough decision to make.
   On Tuesday, voters will be asked to approve school spending plans that carry increases in school taxes.
   Volunteering for a tax increase is not usually high on the list of priorities for most people. But we think the tax hikes are reasonable, given the circumstances facing the school districts — increases in high school tuition in Cranbury and Jamesburg and quickly growing enrollment in Monroe.
   In Cranbury, voters can expect to pay 1.4 percent more in school taxes if the district’s $9.85 million budget is approved. The budget is expected to increase school taxes 2.7 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, from $1.965 to $1.992. The increase means residents would pay $75.25 more in taxes.
   Cranbury expects to send 202 students to Princeton High School next year, 20 more than this year. In addition, tuition increased 3.9 percent, from $11,318 per student to $11,769 per student. That comes to $2.33 million in total tuition paid to Princeton — or almost a quarter of the budget.
   The increase is significantly larger in Jamesburg. The proposed $9.5 million budget is 12 percent larger than the current year’s and carries a tax rate increase of 39.6 cents or $483 in school taxes.
   Jamesburg expects to send 208 students to Monroe Township High School, up from 194, and tuition is expected to increase from $11,220 to $12,360 per student. Jamesburg will pay $2.57 million in total tuition to Monroe next year. The increases in tuition — including to MTHS and for out-of-district special education and handicapped students — account for about 70 percent of the district’s total budget increase and 31 cents of the tax hike.
   In Monroe, the proposed $47.91 million plan is 12.6 percent larger than the current year. It carries a 7-cent increase in school taxes. If approved voters will have to pay $98.70 more in school taxes next year.
   The district plans to hire 27 teachers to accommodate a 350-student increase in enrollment, which is driving regular program teacher salaries up by $655,073 and special education teacher salariesby $22,942. Basic skills teacher and bilingual education teacher salaries also are on the rise. The district also expects to spend $561,782 on construction projects and new computers.
   Adding to this year’s difficulties is a freeze in state aid. In January, Gov. James McGreevey announced that state aid would be frozen due to a $2.9 billion state budget shortfall. That means school administrators had to craft budgets that keep intact existing programs and accommodate tuition hikes, growing enrollment and salaries, without help from the state.
   Cranbury anticipated receiving $4,596,386 in total state aid, the same as this year. Jamesburg received a slight increase in aid, $3,491,833, an increase of $56,452. Monroe will receive $3,273,747, the same as the current year.
   Tax increases are generally undesirable, and having to pull the lever and voluntarily accept it can make it an even harder pill to swallow. But the alternative this year would be to cut some popular or necessary programs, which would have a far greater impact on local schools.
   Area school boards have done the best they can under difficult circumstances to ensure that students receive the best education possible while trying to hold tax increases to a minimum.
   Residents should acknowledge this and support these budgets.