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Nicholas Antonoff

Guest Column

Close attention must be paid to Jackson school budget

First, a delayed thank you for running the excellent report on the continuing deflation of the Jackson school district’s year-to-year enrollment increases (Tri-Town News, Nov. 3, 2005). The official Oct. 15, 2005, enrollment used in the Application for State School Aid (ASSA) was given as 9,758 (compared to a projection of 10,050 used in putting out the 2005-06 budget submitted and voted down in April 2005 and minimally trimmed by the Township Committee in May 2005).

The 69-student increase over the 9,689 2004-05 enrollment confirms our observation (Tri-Town News, Sept. 1, 2005) that “the Jackson board’s own figures show enrollment growth leveling off to a figure of 100 to 150 new students a year.” Yet the board persists in using projections of 300 to 400 student enrollment growth per year.

They also go on bleating about “flat” state aid, this in the face of the decreasing enrollment growth, which hardly makes Jackson qualify as a district with excessive growth necessitating increasing state aid.

The grossly inflated enrollment increase projections in the face of documented decreasing annual enrollment growth are part of the annual shell game the board plays with the voters and the Township Committee in preparing $100 million budgets containing 12 to 14 percent unaccounted (UNK) moneys.

Delving a bit deeper into the March 2005 New Jersey Comparative Spending Guide (CSG), we were able to establish that the UNK “pad” in the budget really is budgeted surplus, a major component of which is the $2.571 million saved by not “processing” the 301 “no-shows” that were budgeted for.

Applying the same calculus to the 2005-06 budget and 10,050 projected enrollment (against an actual enrollment of 9,758), we get a “projected” UNK (surplus) budget of $15.541 million. It will be interesting to see what the March 2006 CSG will show, bearing in mind that the “allowed” surplus for 2005-06 is 2 percent of the $115 million 2004-05 budget.

Surprised? Not really. If we go back to the Kabuki dance the board and Town-ship Committee performed last May, some may remember that the “tentative budget” submitted to the voters in April 2005 showed $3.5 million from “free balance” (surplus) applied to the local tax revenue (levy).

After the committee cut $2.875 million, the “final budget” submitted on May 31, 2005 showed $4 million from free balance applied to the budget in flagrant disregard of (state law) S-1701’s express prohibition of the use of free balance to mitigate committee cuts to defeated budgets.

S-1701 also stipulates that all excess balances over 3 percent of the previous year approved budget be applied to reduce the tax levy before the budget is submitted to the voters. The March 2005 CSG shows the Jackson actual excess 2004-05 balance is $8.15 million, which leaves $4.15 million improperly denied relief to the voters.

Then there is the case of the disappearing health benefits saving. At the May 30 school board meeting, Superinten-dent of Schools Thomas Gialanella said the increase in the cost of health benefits started at 22 percent, decreased to 19 percent in the tentative budget, and dropped to 14 percent when the budget was struck.

A district spokeswoman clarified that by stating (in June) that the final reduction produced a saving of about $750,000. The committee cut $250,000 from that item, reducing the increase to 17 percent. Where is the remaining $500,000 and why was the full reduction not applied in the final budget approved by the board on May 30, 2005? What number is in the union contract negotiated last December?

Finally, there is the absurdity of the board not reporting investment interest received on banked referendum construction funds on the lame excuse that “if we don’t get the anticipated investment interest, we shall have to take the money from surplus [sic] during the course of the year.” I would not recommend trying this dodge with the IRS.

Since 2001, the school budget has grown at a rate of 8 percent a year, while the student enrollment grew at under 3 percent and has now slowed to 0.7 percent. It appears that the smaller the increase in enrollment, the larger the budget increase and most of it goes to surplus – that is insane.

Mr. Gialanella’s response to a referendum supportive speaker’s question as to “what the real cost of educating a student in Jackson is?” was a mumbled “about $8,500,” though he full well knew his memo to the board of May 27, 2005 recommended adoption of the “down-sized” post-committee cuts budget of $118.6 million, which divided by the 2005-06 ASSA enrollment of 9,758 students works out to a figure of $12,170 per student, even in the new politically correct math.

This baldfaced lying and misdirection in the Jackson education enterprise has got to stop. We need a forensic audit of the last four $100 million-plus budgets before we look at the 2006-07 Godzilla.

Just remember, come revaluation in 2008, the budget shell game will really get wild and woolly. We have two elections in the interim, giving us a chance to elect five new board members, a working majority on the school board. If we can find them, let us elect fiscally competent, engaged, sensible people who can truly represent the interests of the paying stakeholders in the Jackson education enterprise.

Then we may finally be able to get rid of the bloated underperforming administrative cadres and get real value for the dollars invested in the education of the students. Hopefully they will be better prepared for advanced college work, be more successful in earning scholarship support (saving their parents money as a return on the investment made in their education), and be better prepared to compete in the global workplace. To start, the new administration can begin putting resources into turning out good high school products and ease up on the overemphasis on the middle schools (SAT over GEPA).

Nicholas Antonoff of Jackson is a candidate for the Board of Education.