School tax decrease on the horizon for Monroe taxpayers

Members of the Monroe Township Board of Education discuss the 2021-22 school budget during a meeting on April 26.
×
Members of the Monroe Township Board of Education discuss the 2021-22 school budget during a meeting on April 26.

By MADELEINE MACCAR

Corespondent

The Monroe Township School District Board of Education convened virtually April 26 for the final hearing of the 2021-22 academic year’s budget.

Residents with homes assessed at the municipality’s average $320,410 value can expect a $52.51 decrease in their school taxes.

District Business Administrator/Board Secretary Michael Gorski presented a budget that is “95% equal to” its preliminary version, and began by explaining the only change since that March 15 introduction. Thanks to a roughly $550,000 federal grant through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund that will pay for desks’ plastic shields, budget allocations to cover that safety measure will instead go toward hiring a special education supervisor.

“What that grant afforded us was a revenue source that had been previously unidentified,” Gorski said. “We reviewed our priority list of appropriations that are waiting for room in the budget and at the very top of that list was the supervisor position for special education. It is all of our opinion that this position provides the greatest benefit most broadly to the entire special education program.”

Gorski added that while his name and those of Superintendent Dr. Dori Alvich and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Adam Layman are on the budget presentation, the final numbers are the result of one exhaustive group effort requiring feedback from the board, administration and educators alike. He also explained that the budget can’t be tailored and finalized until the district receives notification of its state aid award in March.

State aid accounts for 5.71% of the district’s funding, while federal aid comprises just 0.92%. Local taxes provide the vast majority of Monroe Township School District’s financial resources at 85.14% — “still an extraordinary number” but one that Gorski noted indicates a decrease to taxpayers, who have typically shouldered closer to 88% of the district’s financing. State aid increased 26% from the current 2020-21 school year, to the tune of $1,635,083.

State aid is just one factor influencing the tax rate. Fund balances, ratables and the effect of enrollment on appropriations are also contributing elements.

The budget was crafted with three primary district goals in mind: Engage the school community in the development of the district’s action plan; work with the community to address student growth and create a referendum project; and revise and implement the district’s restart and recovery plan for the 2021-22 school year.

“This year’s budget, it’s a challenge because it needs to meet the needs of 433 projected additional students and 1,500 current unhoused students — that’s technically defined as students beyond the capacities of the schools to accommodate them,” Gorski explained.

The budget also focused on only performing capital outlay projects required for health and safety, replacing buses as their retirement schedule dictates and contracted routes with the district’s in-house fleet, and meeting the needs of student growth. Rising enrollment numbers, aging school facilities, meeting and exceeding state learning standards, considering student-to-teacher ratios and the district’s impact on taxpayers were also key budgetary considerations.

“We believe that our proposed budget continues to become more efficient every year as evidenced by a successful county budget efficiency review, where Monroe was exemplified for many best fiscal practices,” Gorski said.

Layman itemized some of the budget’s inclusions, such as an array of programs pertaining to curriculum and instruction, assessments to guide instruction, a whole-child and diversity focus, and professional development and memberships.

“We really hashed out what textbook adoptions were needed,” the assistant superintendent said. “We have some 2020 NJSLS (New Jersey Student Learning Standards) standards revisions coming up over the next two years so we’re in the process of coordinating textbook adoptions to align with curriculum revisions.”

Gorski then outlined specific budget allocations, which included: $1,413,626 for instructional and support staff; $303,676 for textbooks and a proposed $3,305,382 lease over five years for technology; and the statute-mandated replacement of six 54-passenger buses with camera-equipped newer vehicles at $650,000. Seven districtwide capital improvement projects accounted for a cumulative $1,353,200 of the budget’s overall allocations.

He also noted that the 2021 tax levy cap indicates a $2,161,245 increase, bringing the district’s 2021 tax levy cap to $110,223,519, in terms of budgeting to the maximum spending authority.

“That’s pretty lean as far as the growth of the tax levy—it’s the leanest that we’ve seen in a number of years,” Gorkski pointed out, attributing it to the district having no banked cap and receiving neither enrollment adjustment nor health care spending adjustments.

Two slides demonstrated how the district is spending below both state averages and state medians in its administrative and per-pupil budgetary costs among K-12 districts with more than 3,500 students. The state median and average for administrative costs are $1,690 and $1,626, respectively, while Monroe Township School District’s is $1,451; for per-pupil costs, the median is $15,904 and average is $15,756, whereas the district’s is $14,996.

Gorski noted that “a plethora of shared services” have offered the district significant cost-saving opportunities. A food service program that the district applies for through the United States Department of Agriculture saves the district $110,000 alone.

All told, the 2021-22 budget reflected a 1.6-cent decrease in the school tax rate, which Gorski attributes to an uptick in state aid and an increase in ratables.

“It is very unusual for a district with the demands that we have placed upon us to have this kind of consequence,” he said.

The board passed the 2021-22 budget, which will be sent to the Middlesex County Department of Education for approval.

A video of the April 26 meeting, including the complete budget presentation and public hearing, can be accessed at bit.ly/3xt2Brj. The district also provides additional budget information at monroe.k12.nj.us/domain/1962.

The next meeting of the Monroe Township School District Board of Education is scheduled for May 10, virtually. Visit monroe.k12.nj.us for more information, including a link to log into the May meeting.