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Increases in Jamesburg tuition and Falcon Care fees expected as Monroe faces difficult school budget year

MONROE – Monroe Schools Superintendent Dori Alvich prefaced administrators only “needs” can be considered in the 2020-21 school budget not any “wants” as they started putting together their department budgets.

“This was a very difficult budget to put together,” she said. “One of the things [Business Administrator Michael] Gorski has talked about many times over the course of this year is the district excess surplus figure and how it has gone down from over $5 million in the 2019-20 budget to $3.2 million in the 2020-21 budget.”

Alvich said the main reasons for the decrease were labor contracts, special education costs and security vestibule projects, which all came in significantly higher than what was previously budgeted.

The Board of Education approved the $136.89 million preliminary budget at a meeting on March 18. A public hearing on the 2020-21 school budget will be held on April 27.

The budget is proposed to be supported by the collection of a $108.06 million tax levy from the township’s residential and commercial property owners.

The school district’s 2019-20 budget totaled $134.88 million and was supported by the collection of $104.51 million in a local tax levy.

For 2020-21, the school district proposed tax rate is increasing by $2.17 cents to $2.6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

District administrators said for the owner of a home assessed at the township average of $318,000, school taxes will increase by $83.84 from 2019-20, which saw a $68.87 school tax increase.

The amount of school taxes an individual pays is determined by the assessed value of his home and/or property and the tax rate that is set by the school district.

At the beginning of every budget process, which begins in October, each administrator starts with a zero base budget and fills it with what they need from programs and resources to textbooks, and supplies.

Even with just the administrator needs, the district was $6.6 million in excess of the 2% spending cap. And after defense rounds, which involve combing through line by line of administrator needs, 13 new proposed positions were cut including new proposed clubs and athletic offerings.

Gorski said no existing positions and programs have been cut from the 2020-21 budget.

Alvich said they took a look at capital projects and decided no new capital projects are included in budget appropriations unless needed for the health and safety of the students and many proposed technology supplies were taken out and only includes what is needed to run the district smoothly and allow for state testing.

With the elimination of new positions and programs and conserving on capital projects and technology, the district brought the excess of the 2% cap to $3.4 million.

The administration turned to the revenue side to see what they could do to bring revenue sources into the district to help offset the excess costs.

The district proposes to garner $500,000 in revenue sources with increases to the Jamesburg tuition fee of $82,500 (Jamesburg sends students to Monroe Township High School), a 10% increase in fees for before and after school Falcon Care and Early Children Enrichment, and fee increases for building and iPad uses.

School officials noted Falcon Care fees have not been increased since they started the service four years ago and building fees will be for people outside of Monroe.

Gorski said the district will aggressively look into advertising on buses and school grounds to offset the costs the parents and guardians face with the proposed fee increases.

After the increased revenues, the use of $1 million more in state aid the district received, the use of $1.4 million in banked cap from previous budget years and $180,000 from capital reserves, the district was still $1.7 million in excess of the 2% cap.

The district will receive $7.28 million in state aid for 2020-21, which administrators said is an increase of $1.01 million, or 17.2% increase from the 2019-20 total of $6.27 million.

Gorski looked at other measures including the employee health insurance, which is a $26 million line item. Negotiations with the district’s current provider Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield yielded a 6.5% increase, which school officials said was not affordable without cutting existing programs and services.

The district has decided to change their health insurance carrier to Aetna starting July 1, which gave the district a zero percent increase. The health carrier change eliminates the $1.7 million in excess of the 2% cap, Gorski said, adding the staff will not incur any new increases with the new heath insurance provider.

School officials said school budget spending is driven by enrollment. A User Friendly Budget posted by administrators indicates the district’s enrollment on Oct. 15, 2018, was 6,824 pupils. The district’s enrollment on Oct. 15, 2019, was 6,903 pupils. The district’s estimated enrollment for 2020-21 projected from Ross Haber Associates is 7,144.

The majority of the budget, 52.90%, is in instruction, special education related services and tuition; benefits follow with 20.68%, debt service is 7.82% and transportation makes up 5.5%.

The budget includes six 54-passenger buses with cameras totaling $650,000, two 25-passenger vans with wheelchair lifts and cameras totaling $160,000, one additional bus driver and one transportation paraprofessional totaling $74,039, and two GPS bus locator monitoring and tracking systems and two radios totaling $9,000.

Capital improvements include the creation of two additional classrooms from the media center at Oak Tree School totaling $120,000, paint and remediation at Barclay Brook School totaling $60,000, the Monroe Township Middle School Industrial Arts Dust Collection Exhaust system totaling $75,000, and other health and safety requirements totaling $100,000-$200,000.

Gorski said ratables in the township, which also influence the tax rate, are increasing $105 million, 1.36%, in the 2020-21 school budget. He noted last year, the township saw a 1.97% increase in ratables.

The budgetary per pupil cost in the Monroe Township School District is $14,925 for a K-12 district of 3,500-plus students, and administrative costs per pupil is $1,463.

The district is made up of six elementary schools, one middle school and one high school.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com.

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