‘Austerity’ is a theme in school budgeting

"It’s been a crunch down year" for Princeton district, finance committee chairman says.

By: Jeff Milgram
   They’ve heard the budget requests from principals and supervisors — and now comes the hard part.
   The Princeton Regional Board of Education’s Finance Committee is in the midst of preparing what its chairman is calling an austerity budget.
   "It’s been a crunch down year," said Alan Hegedus, chairman of the committee, "another year of austerity."
   The committee has heard presentations from principals that would maintain current programs. On Monday, it will hear a closed-door presentation from Lewis Goldstein, assistant superintendent for human resources, public relations and community affairs, who is expected to tell the committee what the second year of the teachers’ contract will cost in salaries and benefits.
   Mr. Hegedus suspects that the budget will contain money for little or no new initiatives, including additional teachers.
   "I don’t expect anyone will endorse increasing the staffing," Mr. Hegedus said. "The larger question is: Can we sustain the level of staff we have?"
   One initiative that may fall victim to belt-tightening may be the plan to strengthen the athletic program at the John Witherspoon Middle School, Mr. Hegedus said.
   Last April, voters approved a $58.8 million budget, 7.5 percent higher than the previous year’s $54.7 million spending plan.
   The board last year initially faced expenses that were $2.2 million over the state-mandated cap, which applies to certain budget categories, requiring a major paring of spending requests. With a 3-percent imposed cap, the district would have been allowed to increase its budget in those areas by only $1.4 million, with an estimated $1.3 million of that going to pay for salary increases.
   The largest rate of increase for 2004-2005 comes in special education, said Mr. Hegedus, who expects costs will rise 15 percent, or more than $1 million. "You have to make certain assumptions about the number of students," he said.
   The budget is traditionally completed and introduced by the school board around the end of February. In March, the board holds a public hearing on the budget and then votes on it.
   Taxpayers vote on the budget in the school elections in April.
   Much will depend on whether state aid, which was frozen at about $3.5 million for the past two years, will be increased, Mr. Hegedus said.
   Construction costs are adding pressure to the budget-writing process. "This is perhaps the toughest year we’ve had because of the referendum," he said.
   Last spring, the district began an $81.3 million project to renovate and expand all six schools. But construction kept teachers out of their classrooms until the last minute, which added to the cost of overtime for custodians and pay for additional custodial workers.
   Health and safety issues related to the construction added about $750,000 to the cost of the project. The money to pay for work will come from the project’s contingency funds and this year’s budget.
   There have been no formal discussions about asking voters to approve a second question, either for the budget or to pay for construction, Mr. Hegedus said.
   "This is not something we feel comfortable going to the public with," Mr. Hegedus said.