Defeated school budgets face municipal perusal

Budgets for South Hunterdon, Stockton and West Amwell Township were rejected by voters, making it necessary for the governing bodies in each district to either approve, cut or totally reject the spending plans.

By: Linda Seida
   The governing bodies of local municipalities will face the task of approving or shooting down proposed school budgets for South Hunterdon Regional High School and elementary schools in Stockton Borough and West Amwell Township.
   Students are sent to the high school from three municipalities: Lambertville, West Amwell and Stockton. When the high school’s proposed budget of $6.9 million was defeated April 15 by a combined vote of 510 to 454 from all three municipalities, Lambertville’s citizens were the only ones in favor of the budget. Now the high school’s superintendent and Board of Education must make a case for their proposed budget to officials in Lambertville, Stockton and West Amwell.
   Cheryl Simone, South Hunterdon’s superintendent, said this is the first time in the three years she has held the position a budget has been defeated. Now, she said, the district’s Finance Committee and Board of Education must put together a package for the state, required after a budget is defeated.
   According to the state Department of Education, school districts must submit their packages to municipal clerks by April 23. Meetings with municipal officials must be held between that date and May 19 when municipal governing bodies will be required to certify a tax levy.
   Although she could not point to any one reason as a possible source of the budget defeat, Dr. Simone pointed out that "a huge percentage of school budgets, certainly in Hunterdon County" faced a fate similar to South Hunterdon’s.
   "This is the way the process works," said Rich McDaniel, president of the Stockton Board of Education. "It’s a process of checks and balances. After careful consideration, if voters look at the numbers, they should vote no" if they believe that is the best choice.
   Stockton’s proposed budget of $484,276 was defeated 59 to 48.
   "My only comment about the process is that people tend to vote no with little or no understanding of what’s in the budget," he said. "We have open budget meetings, which no one attended. We have copies of the budget. If you are going to vote, make an informed decision."
   Stockton’s budget is already "bare bones," Mr. McDaniel said, adding much of the expense was incurred by the fact "health care benefits went up 28 percent in one year. We’re fiscally responsible. We continue to have a low cost per student ratio, and we’re very proud of this."
   Meetings with council members have not been scheduled yet. In Stockton, the Board of Education hopes to meet with Borough Council within the next two weeks, Mr. McDaniel said.
   He said governing municipal bodies will face three choices in regard to proposed budgets: keep them the same, raise them or lower them.
   "If it’s accepted, it stops there," he said. "If it’s rejected, it can go to the state" for appeal.
   Because of the spring recess, Dr. Todd Fay was unavailable for comment concerning West Amwell’s proposed school budget of $3.1 million. It was defeated by a vote of 214 to 189.