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Jackson school budget cuts raise concerns

JACKSON – As a result of decisions made on the state level in mid-July, the Jackson School District Board of Education was forced to accommodate a $1.35 million reduction in state aid two weeks into the 2018-19 fiscal year.

Under Gov. Phil Murphy’s initial proposal in March, the district’s state aid package for the 2018-19 school year was expected to total $50.122 million. Using that number and following directives from state officials, district administrators crafted a $153.83 million budget for the upcoming school year.

However, the district’s state aid amount changed in July when a bill signed into law by Murphy changed the way state school aid is allocated and trimmed Jackson’s state aid for 2018-19 to $48.770 million.

District administrators suddenly had to find a way to accommodate the loss of $1.35 million they had included in the budget for the upcoming school year.

During a special meeting on July 31, board members voted to adjust the budget by reducing appropriations in dozens of line items by a total of $752,000 and by appropriating $600,000 from surplus funds (savings) as additional revenue in the budget.

Superintendent of Schools Stephen Genco said the board was forced to approve a revised budget. He said efforts are underway to appeal the process.

Genco said the 2018-19 school year represented the first time in several years the district was initially told it would receive more state aid than the previous year.

In the budget the board adopted for 2018-19, “we lost 14 positions … We cut spending at every school level. We trimmed our capital projects budgets down to really only security vestibules. We maintained the integrity of our technology and infrastructure, but it was a budget we thought was fair,” Genco said.

In July, word came that Trenton was cutting district’s state aid by $1.35 million from what had been promised in March. Genco said the board made cuts by looking at non-salary line accounts that were not fixed costs and taking 1 percent from those accounts.

“We are not cutting any programs,” the superintendent said.

Genco said there were two new salaries in the budget the board adopted several months ago.

“There were two positions we wanted to put in the budget, a behaviorist and a foreign language teacher at the secondary division, that we have not hired and we are certainly just going to absorb it at this point,” he said.

Regarding the appropriation from surplus funds, Genco said, “Now that sounds fine and dandy, but what does that do? It is going to put us in a position where we may have to freeze accounts because we come up short in those accounts now because we are tight in many places.”

Genco said Jackson “is in better shape than some districts,” but acknowledged he is concerned about the future.

“If (the law) stays intact the way it is currently written, over the next seven years Jackson will lose over $17 million in state aid. Next year we will be looking at another $1.3 million decrease,” the superintendent said.

Genco said for 2019-20 the district would still have surplus funds to handle the anticipated loss in state aid, but in the third year of the new funding system (2020-21) the district will not have that money available. He said the law would not allow the district to continue to do its business as usual.

“Next year is an additional $1.3 million (reduction). 2021 is $1.7 million. 2021-22 is $2.4 million. 2022-23 is $3.1 million, 2023-24 is $3.6 million and 2024-25 is $4.1 million. Nobody has that type of surplus; it is just impossible to continue to function that way. That is a total of $17.3 million in the loss of state aid over the next seven years,” Genco said.

He said all the district’s programs will stay intact for now, no staff was cut from the elementary level and administrators are not looking to increase class sizes. However, by the third year of the new funding system (2020-21), Jackson will no longer have any surplus and administrators will be forced to cut programs, he said.

“We will use up (the surplus) by year three… (the cuts) will be staffing and programs. We are 82 to 83 percent staff, we are a people business. We could never fiscally handle that (loss of state aid) without (cutting) programs and staff,” Genco said.

Board member Sharon Dey said, “we are in a really bad place” in the state.

“As somebody who has served on the board for 11 years, I am disheartened and very alarmed by the way this state is viewing education,” she said.

Dey said residents need to get involved and start running for office.

“This is disgraceful. Something we built up over years and made our education system very successful, we are watching the collapse of it and it is disgusting … you do not do this (sudden budget reduction). We are two weeks into an operating fiscal budget and you do not do this,” Dey said.

Board Vice President Vicki Grasso made it clear all of the board members were concerned about the line item “Other Employee Benefits – Health” which was the largest single reduction from the original budget in the amount of $331,458.

Genco explained, “Our health benefits line item is close to $25 million and it provides the health benefits, etc. for our employees. We get a brokerage number at a percentage that we build into the budget. We always have a little more money in there because you do not know if a single person leaves and a married person comes in, then the benefits are different.

“So you always want a little bit of fat … we are basically alleviating most of, if any fat that is in there. It is tighter than we would ever want it to be, but we are not going to stop benefits for any employees, nor could we,” he said.

During public comment, residents asked about programs getting cut in the future and the possibility of redistricting students.

Genco said the district’s demographer was in last month and he said there is no real reason to redistrict students, but he said programs would be hurt down the road if nothing changes in the school funding system that is now law in New Jersey.

Genco said there might be a day when the district only runs one varsity program or limited programs, but said he hopes the district never gets to that point because that would directly impact students.

Board members Tara Rivera, Thomas Colucci, John Burnetsky, Dey, Grasso and board President Scott Sargent voted to to authorize the changes to the budget.

Burnetsky thanked the administrative staff for their hard work “on this ridiculousness.”

“This state has been on a downward spiral of tax and spend and tax and spend for 50 years. I do not know where it is going to end. I hope the people of this state wake up one of these days before everyone is gone,” Burnetsky said.

Sargent thanked Mayor Michael Reina, who was in attendance for the special meeting.

“We talked about community a lot tonight, but without being the master of the obvious, as an advocate not only for just the students, but all taxpayers in Jackson. When something like this happens it directly impacts the value of our homes, maybe not today, but in the long term,” Sargent said.

Sargent said, “we are very dedicated” to all the programs, especially the special needs programs, because that is “very near and dear” to a lot of their hearts.

“I am confident we are going to do well in (the appeal) process and if we do not, again my confidence lies within the administration, our professionals and the board. I think we will be successful as a district,” Sargent said.

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