2022-23 school budget uses full 2% cap to fund North Brunswick schools


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6-cent tax rate increase is related to salary, charter school, transportation costs


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NORTH BRUNSWICK – Although taxpayers in North Brunswick saw no increase in 2021-22 related to school taxes, taxes will increase for 2022-23 because of increase in salaries, charter school costs and transportation costs.

The 2022-23 proposed budget includes the general fund, which is the current general expenses plus capital outlay plus charter schools, at a cost of $129,400,899; grants and entitlements from state and federal sources, at an amount of $8,142,710; and the debt service fund, which is the board’s share minus debt service revenue plus the local tax levy, at an expense of $9,262,935.

The largest component of the operating budget of $129,400,899 is salaries and benefits. Superintendent of Schools Janet Ciarrocca said North Brunswick is a “talent-heavy business” with 1,000 employees. She said 75% of the budget cost is salaries.

“Talent, our teachers, by very nature are the core of our work with students, and all of our staff who support that,” she said.

Other major components of the budget include charter school costs, facilities operations, transportation, technology, special education and capital acquisitions.

The total budget up for approval by the Board of Education is $146,806,544. The board unanimously approved the tentative budget during a March 23 meeting. If the budget receives final approval from the county and the state Department of Education, taxpayers who own an average assessed home of $160,695 will see an increase of $8.44 per month during the upcoming year.

The tax levy increase of 6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation is a $1.7 million tax levy increase over 2021-22; that is the allowable increase according to the 2% cap, Ciarrocca explained. Adding in the state aid figure of $6.2 million, the school district has $7.9 million in revenue it is able to spend, Ciarrocca said.

In 2021-22, there was a zero increase because the board members recognized families were struggling, the superintendent said.

“We do believe that we provide a value for the money invested by providing a strong system where infrastructure and employees are strong and well maintained,” Ciarrocca said.

She said a strong school system builds home values and attracts more families.

“Parents, when they are looking to purchase a home, they go online and they look at the school district and their value and what are they getting for their value. So, we feel that we are presenting a budget here tonight that provides that balance, provides a value for the parents who are already in town – having an education that will be strong for their students and support them throughout their career here – and also make it appealing to people who may be coming into the district,” Ciarrocca said.

Explanation of the budget process

Ciarrocca said the budget process begins in November. Administrators assume a flat budget, because state aid numbers are not allotted until February or March. She said enrollment, programs, staffing and now the effects of the coronavirus pandemic contribute to costs.

She said the district’s main sources of income start with the local tax levy, which has a 2% cap; state aid; and federal and state grants and entitlements.

North Brunswick receives Title 1 funding for the middle school and Linwood, Title 2A funding for professional learning, and Title 3 funding for English language learners.

She said there will be additional federal funds related to pandemic relief, but it is only temporary.

The preschool expansion grant is also state funded, she said.

As of 2012, due to a change in policy, districts can present their budget directly to the school board without a public vote as long as the district remains within the 2% cap.

According to the school funding formula, the baseline cost for a student in elementary school in North Brunswick is $11,975 per pupil. A middle school student is considered 1.04%, a high school student is 1.16%, and a vo-tech student is 1.26% above the baseline.

Ciarrocca said any student who receives free or reduced lunch generally is considered at-risk and therefore needs additional support services.

However, because the current policy allots for every student in the district to receive free lunch, due to the pandemic, families are not completing the appropriate forms, so the counts are not accurate.

“This is the first year North Brunswick is not paying more than their fair share,” Ciarrocca said.

She said the fact that North Brunswick is above the adequacy amount is “good news.”

North Brunswick receives aid for transportation, special education (13.5% of students in the district are considered special education), extraordinary aid for special education (for those students who have to go out of district), and security.

Balancing the budget

Ciarrocca said administrators are charged with balancing fiscal responsibility with educational integrity.

“We know that No. 1 is our educational mission to our students and to educate every one of them with educational integrity, to provide the best education for them, to provide all the resources we need to provide that education.

“And No. 2 is the taxpayers of North Brunswick; that is part of the fiscal responsibility to make sure we are doing it in a responsible way, not wastefully, not wasting money, and looking at it in the best way we can for the district,” she said.

The superintendent explained there are many challenges the district faces: charter school costs; safety and security enhancements; the affects from COVID in terms of learning loss, mental health and social-emotional learning; increased special education services; transportation routes; improved facilities, technology, professional development and curriculum; and providing competitive salaries.

Components of the budget

The budget accounts for an increase in personnel, said Amy Rumbo, assistant superintendent, though some positions will be funded by grant money.

The proposals are for a special area teacher, two integrated teachers and two instructional aides at the preschool level; two school counselors, two math academic support teachers, and two Gifted and Talented coordinators for the elementary schools; a computer science teacher at Linwood School; an ELA intervention teacher, math intervention teacher and two social studies teachers for North Brunswick Township Middle School; an instructional dean, in-school suspension teacher, academic intervention counselor and social studies teacher at the high school level; and personnel for special services.

Proposed stipend personnel include a girls volleyball and boys volleyball coach for the middle school; leaders for five new clubs, and an assistant girls varsity and an assistant boys varsity lacrosse coach for the high school; and an assistant athletic trainer for the middle and high schools.

There will be updates to the curriculum based on new standards coming in September, Ciarrocca said, necessitating upgraded textbooks, resources for English language learners, a new civics course at the middle school, AVID expansion, and technology.

Business Administrator Rosa Hock addressed the transportation issue, since the ongoing pandemic has resulted in a shortage of bus drivers and increased gas prices.

She said North Brunswick follows a two-tiered system, busing students in pre-Kindergarten to grade 6 first, followed by a second run for the middle and high schools.

She said 67% of students in the district are bused. Eighty-six of the bus routes were renewed for 2022-23, but 16 routes are out to bid, she said.

There is an increase of 13.3% in transportation costs in this budget cycle, she said.

This includes $642,000 in transportation costs related to charter schools, Hock said.

“But, we have been able to manage. We bring our children to school every day safely and we return them safely,” she said.

Also included in the 2022-23 budget is capital and maintenance projects, such as upgraded HVAC units, the replacement of two small sections of the roof at Linwood School, operations equipment, vehicle maintenance, building upgrades, safety upgrades and storage.

There will also be full funding of full-day pre-Kindergarten, finalization of solar projects and roof projects, continued funding of capital projects through capital and maintenance reserve, prepayment of leases, and fiscally responsible use of ESSER funds, Ciarrocca said.

Effects of charter school enrollment

Ciarrocca said the enrollment of North Brunswick residents in charter schools out of town causes a “duplication of resources” because the township school district has to pay the associated costs even though it is not educating those students.

For the 2021-22 school year, 472 students were enrolled in charter schools at a cost of $6.3 million, or $6.8 million including transportation costs.

For the 2022-23 school year, the estimated enrollment in charter schools is 516 students, with a cost of $7.8 million, or $8.3 million total including transportation.

“That is a big hit for our local budget because, again, we still have seven buildings to maintain. We don’t have those students to educate right now, but we still have all the underlying costs we are required to keep going – but that is a whole school of students.

“We do want to give the students facts and we don’t begrudge any family that chooses a charter school, but we do see a duplication of efforts and wish the state would choose to fund in a different way, and that is basically our message,” Ciarrocca said.

She said it has been difficult to find companies that will take on the charter school bus runs, especially if the charter school is outside Middlesex County.

The tentative budget will be adopted as a final budget at a later meeting, subject to approval by Department of Education review; and the numbers may adjust based on retirements, benefit rates, grants, enrollment, charter school enrollment, final contract settlements and transportation bids, Ciarrocca said.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@newspapermediagroup.com.

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