Council cuts $1.7M from defeated school budget

School administrators wary of cutting capital improvement funds


Staff Writer

EDISON – With questions still unanswered and time rapidly expiring, the Township Council opted to cut $1.7 million from the failed school budget on May 16, five days short of the May 21 deadline.

Taxpayers can now expect roughly a 6-cent increase per $100 of assessed value on their tax rate, down nearly 1.5 cents from the initial budget.

Originally slated at $1.9 million, the $1.7 million cut to the 2007-08 budget as suggested by the council would not affect educational programs, or current or future services. The largest portion of the suggested cuts, some $1.45 million, would come from the capital outlay account, leaving $800,000 for capital improvements over the next year. Approximately $60,000 was deducted from the telephone budget, and $200,000 was taken from the surplus the district had due to having more retirements than they had expected.

At the last minute, $225,000 for instructional equipment was restored to the budget because its elimination would have interfered with educational quality, and, Councilman Anthony Massaro said, interfering with education was something the council was adamantly against.

“Nothing in the resolution is going to touch kids, nothing in the resolution is going to touch services, nothing in the resolution is going to touch anything of an instructional nature,” Massaro said.

Superintendent of Schools Carol Toth did not see it the same way.

“Everything in that budget affects kids,” Toth said. “I don’t care what anybody says. It’s a budget that provides for an educational environment that is conducive to learning.”

Toth said that she was disappointed that the council cut as much as it did, because she felt the budget was already a tight one and did not contain any of the “hidden money” that some claimed was in it.

Business Administrator Dan Michaud said that he was surprised that the council cut more than one tax point, which they had done in the past, and worried that emptying capital outlay would cut much-needed improvements to a stable of old schools.

Many members of the council lamented over having such little time to adequately assess the schools’ finances. Council President Charles Tomaro suggested that the council keep track of the schools’ budget month by month next year in order to make more informed cuts if the budget is defeated again.

The council was put in the unenviable position of making cuts to the school budget, which voters narrowly defeated in April. The council had little more than a month to scour the very hefty document, make changes, and come up with a dollar amount that would not affect the students but would satisfy some outspoken residents who saw the second budget defeat in as many years as a mandate for large cuts.

“It doesn’t matter if the question was defeated by one vote or 1,000 votes, it was defeated,” resident Lois Wolke said.

Joe Petrucelli, a forensic accountant who played a role in lowering the 2007 municipal tax rate, said that he looked at the school budget and felt that the numbers did not add up. He expressed concern that in the eyes of some, seeking answers to the money questions meant being against the well-being of the students.

“As a taxpayer, I have the right to ask that,” Petrucelli said about seeking answers for budget questions, “and not feel like I’m against someone – certainly not my kids or the kids of Edison.”

Massaro said that he was concerned over the “propagandizing” that would ensue from cutting too much or too little from the budget.

“The bottom line is that 8 cents moved to 6 cents and we’re still leaving the Board of Education with 99 percent of their budget,” Massaro said.

Barring an appeal to the state Department of Education by the Board of Education, the council’s budget figure will become law, but the areas in which the suggested cuts are to be applied are not.

Massaro attempted to hammer that point home by saying the areas the council suggested to cut from would not affect students.

“If there are negative ramifications,” Massaro said. “It is not this council’s doing.”

The Board of Education was expected to vote Monday night on how to make up the $1.7 million. While Toth would not speculate on where the board would make the cuts, if she had to make a recommendation it would not mirror the council’s suggestions. The vote was expected after the Sentinel’s print deadline.

Council President Charles Tomaro urged the Board of Education to get back to “grassroots” campaigning for the budget, something he said he hasn’t seen in the past two years.

Tomaro said that with as many students in the schools as there are, if the Board of Education gets a quarter of their parents out to vote, the budget would pass.

Board of Education member Joseph Shannon echoed that sentiment and said that the board needs the public’s support for the budget and when they don’t get it, it may impact the children.

“We provide a lot of services that are not mandated,” Shannon said. “It is unrealistic to think we can continue to provide these services without our budgets being passed.”

Massaro and Tomaro called for the changing of the state funding formula, which, along with the other restrictions, many believe prevented the Board of Education from being able to realize real cost savings.

Massaro said that Old Bridge and Sayreville get twice the state aid as Edison. The reason: Edison has more money.

“You can tell me that they are not as wealthy as Edison, but they are not twice as poor,” Massaro said.

Board of Education Vice President Joe Romano said that it was time for the board to do its job.

“The council did their job and made their recommendations,” Romano said, “and it’s our job to take their recommendations and run with them.”

The council voted unanimously to approve the resolution.

Council members Robert Diehl and Joan Kapitan were absent from the meeting and did not vote. Council member Antonia Ricigliano recused herself from the entire budget process; she has a daughter who teaches in the district and wished to avoid a conflict of interest.