State will decide on FRHSD budget

Eight municipalities fail to agree on amount of tax levy for 2010-11

BY REBECCA MORTON Staff Writer

The Freehold Regional High School District’s budget for the 2010-11 school year is now in the hands of state education officials.

The lack of unanimous agreement among officials of the FRHSD’s eight sending municipalities on a general fund tax levy for the 2010-11 school year means state education officials will decide how much money the district can collect in property taxes during the upcoming school year.

That ruling in Trenton will cause FRHSD administrators and Board of Education members to eventually make decisions about staff levels, class size, courses to be offered and extracurricular activities at the six high schools.

In the April 20 school election, the FRHSD board asked residents of the eight sending towns to approve a $118.3 million general fund tax levy to support a $177.8 million budget to operate six high schools that enroll about 11,800 students. The tax levy was rejected by a count of 16,334 no votes to 12,340 yes votes.

The budget was then forwarded to the governing bodies of Colts Neck, Englishtown, Farmingdale, Freehold Borough, Freehold Township, Howell, Manalapan and Marlboro. The municipal officials bear the responsibility of certifying a tax levy for the school district.

The municipalities’ failure to unanimously agree on a tax levy for the upcoming school year means the budget will be sent to the state Department of Education for review. The department will certify a general fund tax levy and the board will have to adjust its budget to meet that amount.

Within the past week, the governing bodies of Englishtown, Farmingdale, Freehold Township, Howell, Manalapan and Marlboro supported a $4.5 million reduction in the general fund tax levy.

At the same time, officials in Colts Neck and Freehold Borough voted to approve a $2.65 million reduction in the general fund tax levy. Officials in those towns did not make specific comments as to why they were approving a smaller reduction in the tax levy.

Freehold Borough Councilman John Newman voted against the $2.65 million reduction in the tax levy and indicated that he would have supported the $4.5 million reduction.

Newman said the Borough Council’s decision to make a $2.65 million reduction in the tax levy guaranteed that another entity (the state Department of Education) would make changes to the FRHSD’s budget and take the decision out of the hands of the sending municipalities.

At one point, a rumor circulated claiming that Freehold Borough officials had been told that if $4.5 million was cut from the high school district’s tax levy, Freehold High School in the borough would be closed. Parents came to a Borough Council meeting concerned about that prospect.

During a May 18 meeting of the Marlboro K-8 School District Board of Education, board member BonnieSue Rosenwald, a former member of the FRHSD Board of Education, said during her liaison report concerning the high school district that she had heard that particular rumor, too.

“Freehold Borough was afraid because they were told that Freehold High School was going to be closed if this $4.5 million [reduction] went through. So [the Borough Council] passed a resolution for [a $2.65 million cut in the tax levy],” Rosenwald said.

Asked if he had been told that Freehold High School would be closed if Freehold Borough officials voted in favor of a $4.5 million reduction in the tax levy, Mayor Michael Wilson said no such statement was made by representatives of the FRHSD.

In the resolutions from the towns that supported the $4.5 million reduction in the tax levy, it was noted that all employees and unions except for the teachers’ union, the Freehold Regional Education Association (FREA), agreed to some form of contractual concessions in either wage freezes, health care contributions or both for the upcoming school year.

The resolutions state that if the FREA agreed to a wage freeze and a health care contribution, a savings of $4.8 million could have been realized.

The last time a FRHSD budget failed was in 2003, district officials said. In 2003 the eight governing bodies also did not agree on the amount to be cut from the tax levy, forcing the budget to be sent to Trenton for review by the commissioner of education.

“We are only in the middle of a very difficult process,” board President Ronald Lawson told members the public at the May 17 board meeting.

FRHSD Superintendent of Schools James Wasser highlighted the delays that the state review causes, noting that in 2003 the budget numbers were not settled until the end of June.

That caused the FRHSD problems with ordering materials and rehiring staff, Wasser said. He said it caused administrators to scramble in order to organize everything following the state’s decision on the budget.

During the May 17 meeting, board member Christopher Placitella of Colts Neck said he was angered by the $4.5 million that officials in some of the sending towns had directed be cut from the tax levy.

Cuts of that magnitude would certainly affect the children, he said, adding that it would further hurt programs for at-risk students.

Summer school had already been eliminated in the initial budget presented to the public.

“I am going to fight like hell until I’m the last one standing because I just think [the larger reduction in the tax levy] is wrong,” Placitella said.

He said if the mayors of the municipalities that comprise the FRHSD are angry with the teachers for not accepting a pay freeze, that is their business, but he said the mayors are taking their displeasure out on the students.

Applause filled the board’s meeting room following Placitella’s comments.

Andrea Giannopoulos, president of the Colts Neck K-8 School District Board of Education, said that even if all of the sending municipalities agreed to the $4.5 million cut in the tax levy, the board would have owed it to the students to appeal the decision.

She asked that as the budget process continues and changes are made over the next few weeks or months regarding what is removed or restored to the spending plan, that parents and students be kept aware of what is happening.

Giannopoulos encouraged everyone — students and parents alike — to get up and shout to their local representatives to save the district.

Placitella agreed with that statement, adding that the board has no power left. He told those present to speak to their municipal leaders, the commissioner of education and other people who may be able to influence how much money the district will have to work with during the 2010-11 school year.

Contact Rebecca Morton at marlboro@gmnews.com.