District eyes spending plan

Rising enrollment, tuition for MTHS bound students and out of district special education students drive budget.

By: Joseph Harvie
   JAMESBURG — Rising enrollment and the amount of tuition for students attending Monroe Township High School and out-of-district special education schools will be the driving forces behind this year’s school budget.
   The district has begun working on a budget of about $10.5 million, which will go to voters April 20 at the school board election. The Board of Education will discuss the budget at its Feb. 26 and March 4 meetings.
   District officials said they will not know how much of a tax increase — if there is one — the spending plan will carry until school state aid figures are released.
   Last year, voters defeated a $10.24 million school plan that carried a 19.5 percent increase in the school tax rate by a vote of 267-128.
   The defeated budget called for a 43-cent increase in the school tax rate, raising taxes to $2.64 per $100 of assessed valuation. If that budget had passed, the owner of a house assessed at the borough average of $123,000 would have paid $3,247 in school taxes, an increase of $529.
   Under state law, a defeated school budget goes to the municipality’s governing body, the Borough Council, for review. The council can only cut the total tax levy; it is up to the school board to determine what to do once those cuts are made.
   Last year, council mandated that the district cut $48,000 from the budget, dropping the tax levy to $5.888 million. Instead of making cuts, the district increased the amount paid by parents using the latch-key after and before school programs.
   The cuts represented a 2-cent reduction in the tax rate, making the current year’s school tax rate $2.62 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, meaning the owner of a home assessed at the borough average paid $3,222 in school taxes, an increase of $504 over the previous year.
   Prior to last year’s school elections, the school board had cut funding for after-school sports programs. Since October 2002, the district Parent Teacher Organization has been supporting the programs.
   At that time, the board also was forced to lay off four teachers, an administrator and three other full-time workers in an effort to address a $228,000 budget shortfall caused by the enrollment of more special education students than expected and an increase in insurance costs. Those employees have yet to be replaced.
   This year, the district will look at the possibility of hiring new teachers and how recreational sports will be run once state aid figures are released, said Board of Education Business Director Tom Reynolds.
   "Hiring new teachers will be based on enrollment in the district," Mr. Reynolds said. "With children leaving the district to attend private schools and children coming into the system from private schools, the board cannot determine whether or not new teachers will be needed."
   Mr. Reynolds said special education and health insurance costs will be issues again.
   "We expect 18 to 20 additional special education students in our districts, but we won’t know because we still have five months of this school year left and some students can still be classified and others can be declassified," Mr. Reynolds said. "Any additions will affect the budget based on those numbers, but if I don’t get any additions the budget will stand and that is based on the tuition the high school is charging."
   The district is expecting to place about 35 out-of-district special education students next year, which can cost anywhere from $27,000 to $75,000 to educate, Mr. Reynolds said.
   Last year, the number of Jamesburg special education students who go out of district for their education grew to about 40.
   The Monroe Township Board of Education will release tuition for Jamesburg students attending Monroe Township High School once state aid figures are released. Jamesburg currently sends 210 students to the high school, or 19.7 percent of the school’s total population. Monroe currently charges Jamesburg more than $12,000 per student to attend the high school.
   The board also is expecting an increase in health insurance for teachers and heating and electric costs.
   "Health insurance is going to increase, as all districts will have an increase," Mr. Reynolds said. "Heating costs and electric costs are up. Those are stables, they are items that always go up."
   The district also will continue to work with the Borough Council to keep other costs down such as telephone service and copy paper, and are working with the New Jersey School Boards Association to keep insurance costs down.
   "We belong to the New Jersey School Boards Association for insurance; we have done everything we can do to save for insurance," Mr. Reynolds said. "We are at the mercy of the state as to what those rates come in as. We don’t get to negotiate those rates, we can’t negotiate those rates."
   Last year’s budget defeat was the second in two years. In 2002, voters defeated a $9.5 million budget by a vote of 111-164. After the defeat, the Borough Council stepped in and worked with the district to cut $47,162 from the spending plan. The cuts reduced the proposed tax rate increase from 39.6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to $37.6 cents.
   About $14,000 of those cuts were made when the borough took over sewer and landscaping costs for the district.
   The agreement will continue for now, said Mr. Reynolds.