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Lawrence school board approves tentative budget

The Lawrence Township Public Schools Board of Education has approved its tentative $79.6 million operating budget for 2021-22, sending it on to the Mercer County Department of Education for review.

A public hearing and final action on the proposed budget, which was approved at the school board’s March 10 meeting, has been set for the board’s May 5 meeting.

The district’s total operating budget for 2020-21 was $75.7 million.

The 2021-22 budget carries a 2-cent increase in the school district tax rate – from $1.57 per $100 of assessed value to $1.59. The school district tax applies to residential and non-residential properties.

A 2-cent increase in the school district tax rate means the owner of a house assessed at the township average of $282,395 will pay $4,490 in school district taxes, or about $68 more than last year.

Turning to the revenue side, the property tax levy to support the 2021-22 budget is $70.9 million. This compares to the $69.7 million tax levy to support the 2020-21 budget.

The $1.2 million increase in the tax levy for the 2021-22 budget is 1.7%. It is under the 2% cap by $192,585, school district officials said.

Other sources of revenue include miscellaneous revenue, such as tuition and interest on savings, and state aid. Miscellaneous revenue declined by $70,000, from $328,000 to $258,000.

State aid increased by $630,445 to $4.8 million. This reflects the trend of increased state aid for the Lawrence Township Public Schools. The district received $4.2 million in state aid in the 2019-20 budget, and $4.3 million for the 2020-21 budget.

Thomas Eldridge, the business administrator for the school district, said people have asked about what the district has done with the money it has saved during the pandemic when the school buildings were closed. The perception is that there is a surplus, he said.

“It is true that there is an available balance in transportation. It is true that positions have not been filled immediately,” Eldridge said. But it is also true that the school district has had to pay the bus transportation companies, even if the school buses are not running, he said.

The school district lost $165,000 in rental income because the afterschool program had been suspended because of the pandemic, Eldridge said. The district also lost $125,000 in tuition because the preschool program has been closed.

Diving deeper into the budget, Eldridge said the cost drivers are basically the same – salaries and benefits, and enrollment fluctuations and shifts. Salaries and benefits, which account for about 80% of spending in the budget, increased by $1.2 million.

The budget for general education increased by $429,977. The cost for the special education program grew by $360,565. Tuition for special schools outside of the district, which are needed for certain special education students, increased by $306,857.

Working to shape a budget during the COVID-19 pandemic was challenging and a “monumental task,” said Ross Kasun, the superintendent of schools.

Kasun praised Eldridge, who he said worked tirelessly to prepare a budget that is fiscally responsible.

Eldridge acknowledged the challenges presented by the pandemic.

“The way we approach all of these problems is as an opportunity. With everything we do, we approach it with a level of resilience,” Eldridge said. “There are things we are learning and things that are disappointing, but there are good things happening as well.”

 

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