EDITORIAL: Help borough set responsible school budget

Residents are urged to understand and get involved with school budget.

   The Jamesburg School District has some tough decisions to make, and so do borough residents.
   After two years of bare-bones budgets, voter rejection and cuts in programs, the district is looking at a new school spending plan that starts with little room to cut and few options other than raising the school tax rate.
   This is not likely to make residents any happier than they’ve been in recent years when they’ve gone to the polls and overwhelmingly defeated the district’s school plans.
   That’s why we are asking taxpayers to get involved in helping the district draft its budget now, rather than wait until the April school vote to take out their frustrations, as they have the last two years.
   We’re also asking that Jamesburg taxpayers consider some realities:
   • The district was forced to lay off four teachers, an administrator and three other full-time employees in the fall of 2002 when the district found itself paying significantly more than anticipated for special education. Those teachers have never been replaced. This occurred despite taxpayers being forced to accept a 37.6-cent tax rate increase that cost the owner of a home assessed at $123,000, the borough average, $462.
   • The district eliminated a librarian position and all funding for after-school sports programs in its 2003-2004 budget before it even sent it to the voters — and the budget still went down to a rather resounding defeat. After the Borough Council cut $48,000, it set the district’s school tax rate at $2.62 per $100 of assessed valuation — a 41-cent increase, or $504 more than taxpayers were asked to pay in 2002-2003.
   • The Borough Council reviewed each of the last two budgets after voters defeated them at the polls and found there was very little fat to trim. The council managed to cut just $48,000 from each budget, which is not a lot in the context of a $10 million tab.
   • While numbers are not yet available for the 2004-2005 budget, it seems pretty clear that some basic fixed costs will be increasing, as they do nearly every year. The 2003-2004 budget included a 32.5 percent increase in health insurance costs, from $605,182 to 801,969; a 17.7 percent increase in tuition costs — from $3.47 million to $4.09 million — to cover both high school students attending Monroe and special education students attending out-of-district schools; and a 5.3 percent increase in debt service, from $433,437 to $456,438. That $840,000 increase was equivalent to about half the increase in the tax levy.
   • Unlike neighboring Monroe and Cranbury, the borough has little room to expand its tax ratable base. This means that any increase in spending must be paid for by the taxpayers who already are here — unless the state steps up to the plate and boosts aid to the borough. This, of course, is not likely, given the financial difficulties that face the state and the McGreevey administration’s antipathy toward smaller school districts such as Jamesburg.
   These are the realities that the board will face over the next two months as it attempts to craft a budget that will provide a good education for the borough’s students while attempting to keep taxes from going through the roof.
   We are not asking that residents blindly support the board or accept whatever budget plan is placed on the ballot. That would be a foolish abrogation of their responsibilities.
   What we’re asking is that residents understand the realities facing the district and get involved now with the budget, identify priorities and let the board know how much of a tax hike they will accept. Because a tax hike is coming. There is no way around it.