EDISON – The need for an addition at Lincoln Elementary School on Brookville Road is pressing.
“It is our most crowded school with 1,000 students,” Schools Superintendent Bernard Bragen said, noting the school was built for 500 students.
The Edison Board of Education’s (BOE) Finance Committee, led by Board member Elizabeth Conway, had to grapple with whether or not it was the right time to add the addition into the 2020-21 school budget in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“[The addition to] Lincoln is a big decision to make,” she said, adding the committee weighed how dire the need is for the addition.
The committee pored through the proposed budget line by line and brought the proposed addition to Lincoln Elementary School from $13 million to $9 million. Conway said although timing for the addition could be better, it was the best the committee could do at this point in time.
The BOE approved the $277.19 million budget at a meeting on May 6, which includes the Lincoln Elementary School addition. Board members Jerry Shi and Yuna Chen voted “no” on the budget.
The budget is supported by the collection of a $235.01 million tax levy from the township’s residential and commercial property owners. Bragen said the tax levy makes up 85% of the budget.
The school district’s 2019-20 budget totaled $262.46 million and was supported by the collection of a $223.78 million tax levy.
District administrators said for the owner of a home assessed at the township average of $180,392, school taxes will increase by $109 from 2019-20, which saw a $113 school tax increase.
In 2020-21, the school tax rate is projected to be $3.17 per $100 of assessed valuation. The owner of a home assessed at the township average will pay about $5,715 in school taxes.
In 2019-20, the school tax rate was $3.11 per $100 of assessed valuation. The owner of a home assessed at the township average paid about $5,605.
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.
“We looked at this budget numerous times, took in line by line and brought it back as low as possible,” Conway said.
Schools Business Administrator Dan Michaud noted after four revisions, the preliminary budget was reduced by $5 million with the cut of $4 million from the proposed Lincoln Elementary School addition and the cut of 11 proposed new staff members.
He said the budget uses $5.8 million in surplus, almost $2 million in banked cap and the expected $27.82 million in state aid, an increase of $4.46 million from last year.
Bragen said the 2020-21 school budget maintains all programs, expands dual enrollment/advanced placement offerings, a revision language arts curriculum for kindergarten through fifth grade, improves infrastructure of school roofs, classroom renovations/science labs and the addition on Lincoln Elementary.
The superintendent said student enrollment, which has been increasing every year, drives the budget and why the district went out for two bond referendums in December 2019 and March 2020. Officials said the proposed referendums would have provided the necessary additional space to the six neediest schools in the district – John P. Stevens High School, Edison High School, John Adams Middle School, James Madison Intermediate, and John Marshall and Lincoln elementary schools – not only to fix the overcrowding issues now, but for future generations to come.
The district has two high schools, four middle schools, nine elementary schools, one intermediate school and one primary school, and operates a preschool program. Student enrollment in September 2017 was 16,192 and officials expect 17,016 students in September 2020. The Edison Township cost per pupil is $13,040 as of the 2018-19 school year, which is below the state average cost per pupil of $16,599.
Bragen noted Edison is the fifth lowest of the 97 school districts with more than 3,500 students.
“[Although] the referendums didn’t meet with success, that does not mean these students are not coming,” he said. “The graduating classes now are significantly lower than classes coming in. We have to ensure not only that we meet their needs socially, emotionally and overall well-being, but still provide a superlative education so that they will be ready for the competitive global society.”
Bragen said he talked about the importance of enhancing the district’s partnership with Middlesex County College during his interview for the superintendent role in October 2019.
“We’re working with the president of Middlesex County College to create that early college academy where our students will be able to graduate our high schools with both a diploma as well as an associate degree,” he said, adding the district looks to implement the early college academy in September 2021.
Bragen noted students, who have gotten into elite colleges and universities, have on average taken 10 college courses during their high school tenure.
Shi said the time is not right for a tax increase after he has spoken to many concerned residents about the uncertain times with families facing furloughs and job loss because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he supports the needed addition for Lincoln Elementary School, but suggested the board could finance the cost of the addition with a lease purchase rather than pay in full.
“I continue to believe there are more fraud and waste in our system that needs to be eliminated,” he said.
Shi suggested the district negotiate vendor contracts and seek solar energy credits on school roofs to save the district money.
Conway said she understands resident concerns of the uncertain times. As a resident on a fixed income, she said she does not want her taxes to go up either.
“I was elected with the idea I’m here for 16,000 going on 17,000 students,” she said, adding the finance committee will make sure the district moves forward proactively and will make sure the district does not pay more than it needs to.
For more information visit www.edison.k12.nj.us.