CRANBURY: Lower tuition costs keep school budget under cap

By David Kilby, Staff Writer
   The Cranbury School District may have some good news and some bad news for taxpayers this year if its proposed budget is passed.
   The good news is Princeton High School tuition costs have been lowered, the district did receive state aid, and the district did manage to get refinanced, reducing debt service costs.
   The bad news is the decreased expenses and increased revenue sources still aren’t enough to balance the $9,000 decrease in average property value in Cranbury.
   Another factor hurting the budget is the 16 percent average increase in health benefit costs for school employees.
   If the budget is passed next month, total expenditures would be $17,681,734. The total general fund would be $16,637,869 with a tax levy of $14,941,270, a 1.9 percent increase from last year.
   ”We are under cap,” said Joyce Picariello, school business administrator.
   Administrative costs would be about $960,000, or $1,676 per pupil; debt services would be $880,961.
   Tuition for Cranbury’s 262 students attending Princeton High School would be $4,029,547, or about $16,529 per student. Last year, tuition was $4,343,426.
   Administrative expenses include insurance, attorney fees, architectural fees, audit fees, administrative salaries and other expenses. All of these expenses are going up more than 2 percent this year, but the district still needs to remain under the 2 percent cap, Ms. Picariello said.
   The superintendent’s salary for Cranbury school district is $140,000; the business administrator’s is $115,000; and the vice principal’s is $98,000.
   ”The administrative salaries are not the lion’s share of administrative costs,” Ms. Picariello said.
   The tax rate for the general fund would be $.9249, and for debt services it would be $.056, making the total $.9809 per $100 of assessed value. This would be a $.0387 increase from last year.
   The owner of a property assessed at the average of $608,299 would pay $5,967 in school taxes if the budget is passed. This year, an owner of a property assessed at last year’s average of $617,439 pays $5,817 in school taxes.
   ”The value of the town has gone down over 10 percent in the last two years,” Ms. Picariello said. “Even if the tax levy were flat, the tax rate would go up. In order to raise the same amount of money, you have to raise the tax rate.”
   A public hearing on the budget will be March 22.
   Ms. Picariello further explained the difficulty of maintaining administrative services, due to a decline in school enrollment.
   ”It’s a small district,” Ms. Picariello said. “We’ve been losing, on average, 10 kids the last couple of year due to just population fluctuation. We only have about 600 kids.”
   What that means is administrative costs remain the same, but are spread out among few students, she said.
   She explained, “Administrative costs (per pupil) are held flat from year to year so whatever it was last year, that’s what I have to base it on this year. That’s not difficult if population is rising or staying the same, but if it’s dropping, it presents a struggle.”
   To help manage attorney fees, which are part of the administrative costs, Ms. Picariello has suggested creating a legal reserve account.
   ”Then next year when we’re doing the year after next year’s budget, we could just take money from the legal reserves,” she said. “We could put any surplus we have at the end of the year into legal reserves and reduce the budget in that administrative line.”
   As bleak as the budget may look, there is some good news. The Cranbury School district will receive $176,258 in state aid.
   ”This was fortunate to hear,” Ms. Picariello said, “because the district was expecting no state aid this year.”
   Also, Ms. Picariello said the district was able to reduce debt service amounts.
   ”We refinanced this year so that’s another bit of good news,” she said. “The district is trying to do everything it can to reduce the taxpayer burden. I would have had to put about $920,000 into debt service if we didn’t get refinanced.”
   Ms. Picariello said the decrease in Princeton High School tuition is the main reason Cranbury is able to put a budget together that is below the 2 percent cap.
   ”That (tuition reduction) essentially allows us to provide all programs we have K-8,” she said. “Kudos to Princeton. They’re working hard. They’re under the same budget constraints as we are. For the last two years, it (tuition) has been less than anticipated.”