Monroe super: District could lose up to $1.5M

Hamilton ‘hoping’ loss of state aid will not result in the need for staff layoffs


It could be worse. That is Superintendent of Schools Kenneth R. Hamilton’s take on the district’s budget situation. Hamilton estimates Monroe could lose roughly $1.5 million in state aid for the 2010-11 budget.

“We’ve been grappling with this loss of equity in terms of funding given to districts considered to be high need and districts like Monroe,” Hamilton said last week. “Monroe receives little aid in comparison. In this case, it’s actually better to be in a position where we are not as heavily reliant on state aid. There’s a big difference if you lose $1 million versus $20 million.”

But the schools chief is not underestimating the impact of losing $1.5 million in state aid. Monroe’s state aid amount had already been frozen the last several years, he said.

“I kind of expected some of those payments from the state would be frozen,” Hamilton said. “We are making provisions to try to generate enough revenue to balance our budget in anticipation of a reduction in these payments. It is a lot. The reality of it is, couple that with trying to be fiscally responsible and preparing a budget for 2010- 2011, and trying to be sensitive to the taxpayers. It’s very difficult.”

Gov. Chris Christie will release the final state aid figures for the coming school year on March 16 when he delivers his budget address. That is when local district officials around the state can begin plugging in budget numbers and releasing them to the public.

Hamilton said the Monroe board just has to further rein in spending. The board could scale back on some professional development activities for teachers and possibly eliminate some school field trips, he said.

For now, Hamilton does not anticipate that there will be any employee layoffs.

“I’m hoping not,” he said. “I can’t really answer that right now. I’m hoping we won’t have to be that drastic this year.”

But there won’t be any new hires either, he said.

“We will not be able to add anybody to our staff,” Hamilton said. “It’s going to be a challenge to retain the people that we have.”

Christie also mandated that school districts throughout the state spend down any excess surplus they have for the current school year. No district will have aid withheld in an amount that is greater than its surplus, the governor has said.

Hamilton said he will go anywhere in town, to any group, to explain the school budget once the final state aid figures are received.

“We don’t have much time,” Hamilton said. “We are going around to our various communities. I’ll be making myself available to anyone who wants to host a coffee klatch in their homes, some of our adult communities. We’ll be going around and trying to share our budget and our budget process.”

But the superintendent is concerned that there will be such a short window between then and the school board elections on April 20.
“The timetable is so incredibly truncated,” he said.”

The Board of Education will hold a public hearing on the budget on March 31. Some residents may not be able attend because it is during Passover and just two days before Good Friday, Hamilton said.

“I certainly want the community to feel that this budget is transparent and our process has been one that is open,” he said. “I fear that folks may perceive this process as one that is exclusive, versus inclusive.”

The Monroe school district currently has roughly 5,600 students and 900 employees, including teaching, administration and support staff. “Enrollment is still going up,” Hamilton said. “Not quite as rapidly. We are seeing some leveling off, a more normal increase.”

Salary freezes are out of the question because the board has negotiated agreements with the teaching staff, he said.
“We are contractually obligated,” he said.

Hamilton is hoping that the district will push for employees to pay a portion of their health care premiums during the next round of contract negotiations in 2011.

“Nobody in the district currently pays toward their health care,” he said. “Pending legislation, that may not even be a negotiated item. There may be a [state] mandate to impose those obligations.”

Hamilton came to the district almost a year ago, in March 2009. Just one month later, residents here rejected a $110.4 million budget that would have raised school taxes on an average home by $67 annually. The Township Council later cut $601,000 from the school budget, which reduced the tax increase to $50 a year.

Hamilton is still concerned about voter apathy.

“I think right now there is a sentiment amongst voters across the state, a sense of frustration,” Hamilton said. “The public school budget is the one place where you get to vote your feelings about it.”