As it relates to the school budget issue, it was indeed refreshing to see the comments of New Providence Councilman Brooke Hern which display an inclusive approach towards his township's residents: "I invite you to share with me your views, concerns, and recommendations for the Borough Council's action in this very difficult time. We cannot succeed without your guidance. With your help, the Borough Council can respond to the will of the voters while preserving and maintaining the high quality of education that our children have always received, and which they need and deserve."
I urge the Berkeley Heights mayor and the rest of the council to follow in Councilman Hern's footsteps and do the same to reach out to all Berkeley Heights residents as well!
In my opinion, it's insufficient just to "call for the education association, the administration and town officials to put their minds together to solve this crisis", as Councilman Bruno did per the Star Ledger on April 22. The problem being, it leaves out input from the primary stakeholder, "Residents/Taxpayers", the majority of which voted NO on April 20. Further, alone they will not achieve the fundamental change and reform that is critical for future years.
Bottom-line, our ideas must be solicited and be at the table in terms of solving this problem.
But, first let's put this school budget issue in context: As reported in the Star Ledger and other sources, the typical school district faces a state aid cut of approximately 5% from last years budget and Berkeley Heights is no different, having a budget shortfall of ~$2.2 million. And, until being voted down, Berkeley Heights residents were being asked to pay for $1.9 Million or >95% of this budget shortfall through an increased tax levy.
With the exception of a last minute BHEA concession of $250k made on April 16, please understand that little to no cuts were made by the schools on this final budget. It's also important to understand that at a time when overall inflation is low and the economy is dire, the biggest factor driving up school costs in this year's budget is personnel costs, most notably the teachers' wage increase of ~4% and -0- contributions towards healthcare.
So while this clearly creates a double whammy, the good news is, this $2.2 million budget shortfall can be nearly solved by the NJEA, BHEA, Administrators and non-bargaining personnel as opposed to a taxpayer levy. This was so stated in the Editorial section of the April 25 Star Ledger and I will show you as well.
With that said, as a parent, an MBA with financial and operational experience and a level-headed and balanced thinker, I have depicted a list of "common-sense" reform items that will not only allow the budget to be balanced without a tax increase but it will also preserve and maintain the high quality of education that residents, parents and children of our community have come to expect. Please note the reform items along with the estimated annual savings show below are based on 2008 data so they most likely would contain even more savings.
1) Rescind Teachers Annual Wage Increase
a. $725,000 in estimated annual savings (302 teachers * $60k avg salary * 4%)
2) Savings From Governor's Early Retirement Plan
a. $560,000 in estimate annual savings (56 Eligible * 20% Retire * $50k salary savings due to teachers being rehired at a lower salary ($100k vs. $50k). And, this does not include benefits savings.
3) Require Teachers to pay 1.5% Towards Healthcare Costs
a. $270,000 in estimated annual savings (302 teachers * $60k avg salary * 1.5%)
4) Further Wage/Benefit Reductions in Administration and Non-Bargaining Employees
a. $250,000 in estimated annual savings
5) Further Reductions in Annual Tuition Reimbursement
a. $200,000 in estimated annual savings
As you can see, items 1 thru 5 above achieves Savings equal to ~$2 Million, which is almost enough to reduce the tax levy on residents to -0-%. But in case the Town Council or BOE wanted a little more flexibility to perhaps provide teachers a raise of 1 or 2% (instead of 4%), etc. I have also added some additional reforms to consider as well.
6) From 2005 to 2011, there were 16 additional students in our schools but during this same period 40.7 additional full-time equivalent employees (FTE's) were added. That's 3 FTE's for every student, a very high ratio! Let's assume we reduce 20 of these FTE's.
a. $1,200,000 in estimated annual savings (20 teachers * $60k avg salary w/ benefits)
7) Transform extra-curricular activities towards a shared (50%) sponsorship/subsidy model similar to Westfield and other townships.
a. $600,000 in estimated annual savings. Currently we spend ~$433 per student for a total of $1.2M.
8) Discontinue charitable contributions to the Highlander Foundation for the astro-turf field. As many may recall this was voted down by taxpayers but found its way into the school budget.
a. $23,000 in estimated annual savings for 2010/11
9) Reduce courtesy busing
a. Estimated annual savings To Be Determined
Items 6-9 results in more than $1.8 Million of additional savings, bringing the Total Estimated Annual Savings for items 1-9 to over $3.8 Million!
So while one could suggest squeezing even more savings out of the 9 items I highlighted or one could delve into various other budget reform areas resulting in even more savings beyond the $3.8 Million that I arrived at, my intent was to be more balanced in my approach. I also wanted show how an average resident who has spent 20+ years in the private sector closing budget gaps could rather easily depict enough savings to allow for a -0-% increase in tax levy for our residents, again while still allowing for enough flexibility to even provide teachers with a 1-2% salary increase this year.
But even of more importance to parents like me is, it preserves and maintains the high quality of education for our children! So as I close, again I urge the Berkeley Heights mayor and the rest of the council to follow Councilman Hern's footsteps and reach out to Berkeley Heights residents for their ideas.
And I am hopeful that my fair and balanced reform items start us do go down the path of what our governor calls for, "Achieving Fundamental Change and Reform"!