Lawrence school budget shows decrease, but taxes increase due to current expense spending

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The Lawrence Township Public Schools Board of Education approved the school district’s $75.7 million operating budget for 2020-21 following a public hearing at the school board’s May 6 meeting.

Although the 2020-21 budget showed a decrease of $371,803 as compared to last year’s budget of $76 million, it still calls for a 4-cent increase in the school district property tax rate.

The school district property tax rate will increase from $1.53 per $100 of assessed value to $1.57. This means the owner of a house assessed at the township average of $281,403 will pay $4,418 in school district property taxes, or about $126 more than last year.

Business Administrator Thomas Eldridge told the school board that the decrease in the 2020-21 operating budget is due to capital outlay in the current year, which was paid for by the capital reserve and fund balance. The 2019-20 budget earmarked $2.4 million for capital outlay, and the 2020-21 budget sets it at $134,864.

“We have an actual increase [of $1.9 million] in the budget for current expense [spending],” Eldridge said.

Increases in salaries and benefits account for $1.8 million of the $1.9 million increase. The remainder is made up of increases in transportation, utilities, supplies and services.

The budget calls for raising $69.7 million in property taxes to support the 2020-21 spending plan, or $1.4 million more than last year. Other sources of revenue include $4.6 million in state aid, $925,000 from the capital reserve/fund balance, and $328,000 in miscellaneous revenue.

The main cost drivers in the 2020-21 budget are salaries and benefits, which increased by $1.8 million, Eldridge said. This includes salaries, pensions, Social Security and health insurance premiums. At $61.2 million combined, it makes up about 80% of the operating budget.

“It is what is driving the budget,” Eldridge said.

Looking at trends, Eldridge said the cost of the special education program climbed from 19% of spending in the 2016-17 budget to 21% of spending in the 2020-21 operating budget.

During the same time period, regular education programs accounted for 39% of spending in the 2016-17 budget, as compared to 37% in the 2020-21 budget, he said.

Other spending categories have remained about the same. Transportation has consistently made up 5% of spending. Security, maintenance and utilities accounted for 11% of spending in the 2016-2017 budget, and 9 percent in the 2020-21 budget.

The school district controls costs in a number of ways, Eldridge said.

About 25% of the district’s electricity is derived from the solar panels put on the roof of every school building several years ago. The solar panels generate about $300,000 in solar renewable energy credits.

The district also retrofitted the lighting system, moving to the use of LED bulbs, Eldridge said.