MILLBURN, NJ - Employee benefit cost increases, chiefly due to the rising tab for healthcare, have gotten to the point where they may soon “crowd out” other areas demanding attention in school budgets, Superintendent of Schools James Crisfield told the Millburn Board of Education on Monday.
Crisfield noted that, in the 2013-2014 school year alone, the cost of increasing the salaries of current employees by 2 percent will result in a cost of $1,026,068, and the cost of increasing employee benefits will be $974,149, while revenues from property taxes ($1,466,835, with a 2 percent increase) and a $98,800 increase in state aid, offset through the use of $90,567 in surplus from previous year, will yield only $1,475,068.
Thus, for 2014-2015, and every year, the superintendent said, the school district starts its budget deliberations by having to cut the budget by $500,000 just to maintain the same level of staffing as the previous year.
He added that gap will rise to $700,000 when the so-called state “Sweeney provisions” calling for contributions of school staff members to their health care premiums “plateau” in 2015-2016.
Because health care premiums continuing to rise above 2 percent, Crisfield said, districts will have three options if they want to provide for educational needs:
Have local taxpayers absorb the “health benefits overage” by incurring annual property tax increases over 2 percent.
Have employees absorb the overage each year through increased benefit costs coverage,
Having less money spent on employees, capital upkeep or other items in the budget to cover the higher health care costs.
“The only other options would be to every year provide less and less healthcare coverage to employees, or to have employees use less and less coverage every year. Neither of those is a viable long-term solution that can be done every year,” the superintendent added.
However, frequent board critics and ex-board members Josh Scharf and Abby Kalen had other options.
Scharf said the board could ask residents in a referendum for permission to raise the budget above the state 2 percent “cap” on budget increases, while Kalen said the superintendent could stick to the superintendents' salary “cap” originated a few years ago by Governor Chris Christie or the district could reduce staffing by, for example, not reinstituting a curriculum supervisor position.
Finance committee member Eric Siegel said the committee decided to deal with the situation in the next budget by taking a much closer look at proposed expenditures.
Meanwhile, on another topic frequently discussed at recent board meetings—non-Millburn students allegedly attending township schools—property committee chairman John Westfall-Kwong reported that data presented to the committee from the online verification system, verifyresidency.com, showed that there were potentially 52 student-provided addresses that caused some concern under the program.
Westfall-Kwong said that the statistics by no means meant that there were 52 instances of students illegally attending township schools but only that the addresses listed on the report had to be investigated further to see if, in fact, there were any illegalities.
He said letters would be sent to the residences pointed out in the report, and, where there was no reply to a letter a followup telephone call would be made and the parents of any students found to be attending illegally would have to re-register their children and provide proof of residency at that time.
Responding to a charge by Kalen that the board was possibly skirting its legal responsibilities by not making the report available to all its members, Board President Jeffrey Waters said the school body would answer Kalen’s question on the district’s website.
Westfall-Kwong also said that the property committee would possibly, in the future, propose districtwide re-registration for students in all grades.
Under a change in the district policy regarding non-residency introduced at Monday’s meeting, students whose parents have moved away from the district on or after Feb. 1 of any school year will be permitted to finish the school year in the district without payment of tuition.
After policy committee chairman Raymond Wong explained the policy, Kalen questioned why the township district was allowing non-resident students to remain tuition-free in the district if their parents moved on Feb. 1 of a school year.
On another matter, Wong and board member Rupalli Whadwa were skeptical that a proposed world language pilot program using the Middlebury College software would be any more successful than the Rosetta Stone software, with which the district has had problems.
They suggested that bringing back teacher-led classes would be a better idea.
Crisfield, pointing out teaching staff cuts in world language programs were made when the district lost all state aid in 2008, said the Middlebury program would be carefully monitored to ensure its success.
He added that he had confidence that the revised world language program, with the new software and some teaching components, would meet the district goal of having all students complete the first part of Spanish instruction before completing sixth grade.
On another matter, resident Doug Cundey continued his opposition to the Core Curriculum by reading a speech given on March 5 by teacher and parent Andrea Cohen to the New Jersey Board of Education.
Cohen said the Core Curriculum was designed by corporate interests like Pearson Publishing and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to privatize public schools, that it placed too much emphasis on standardized testing and memorization rather than teaching students to be critical thinkers and that it wrongfully based teacher evaluations on standardized test results and student achievement even in areas where poor socio-economic factors led to lower student achievement.