BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The 2019-2020 budget for the Bridgewater-Raritan school district is still undergoing changes as the deadline for ratification approaches.
The budget was discussed at the April 9 board of education meeting when board member Barry Walker, chair of the board’s finance committee, said the committee had considered utilizing the entire health waiver.
The proposed $160 million budget had originally been introduced in March, and the board had required the use of an adjustment for an increase in healthcare costs, which came out to $139,067. Business administrator Peter Starrs said the district could roll $507,000 worth of health care costs into the cap over the next three years, and just use $139,000 of those costs as part of the budget, out of a total $646,000 healthcare increase.
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Walker said this month that two of the committee members approved of using the entire waiver, while one had been against it.
Board president Jill Gladstone said it was a “good goal, in terms of fully funding allocations.”
The budget consists of several permanent allocations of funding, the greatest of which is curriculum at over $1.01 million, while other permanent allocations include facilities and technology. Superintendent Russell Lazovick said that even at 100 percent, it is not enough to fully fund all programs, but that things are moving forward.
Starrs had said previously that the district is permitted to exceed the state’s mandatory 2 percent cap imposed on school budgets, by the use of adjustment waivers. The original proposed tax levy of $143.4 million for next year marked an increase of 2.1 percent from the previous year’s budget, with the inclusion of the full waiver.
School board vice president Jackie Barlow said she is still concerned about allocations with the full waiver. She also said she is struggling with potential repairs to the track facility at Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School, and that although safety is important, there are bigger facility concerns, such as students being forced to wear their coats indoors due to low temperatures in some classrooms.
Walker said he doesn’t know if the track has been approved in the budget, although he also said a priority list is a necessity regarding facility repairs. Lazovick added that heating-ventilation-air conditioning (HVAC) and windows are on the facility list plan, and it is question of how much money is needed to increase the budget by to fully fund allocations.
Board member Jeffrey Brookner called the track a “very expensive project,” while member Lynne Hurley had concerns about the budget exceeding the 2 percent cap for the third year in a row.
“I’m very torn,” said Hurley of the effect on local taxpayers. “It’s a lot of money to ask of people, year after year.”
Brookner said the actual cap this year is 2.46 percent, and that the 2 percent cap isn’t on tax increases. He added that a 2 percent cap doesn’t really exist, not with health insurance premiums continuing to rise.
Brookner added that by holding, for example, 0.4 percent of the proposed 2.4 percent over the cap, the district could later potentially find itself in a situation where it might need additional funding, and that it was better to go a little over 2 percent every year.
“It’s a problem Trenton and Washington need to fix,” said Brookner, and not individual school boards.
Gladstone agreed that she didn’t like the tax increase over the last two years either, but felt it is a small amount to go to 2.46 percent, and that it is best for the district and its students. Walker reiterated that the cap is higher than 2 percent, and that it is the prudent if unpopular thing to do, to grow programs and maintain facilities.
Board member Anne Marie Mead said she was not in favor of 2.46 percent. She said she understands it is not an easy decision or discussion, but that at present, she could not support it, although Gladstone said it was not a formal vote.
“It’s a lot of money,” said Mead.
Gladstone said some school boards employ their own legislative committees, to reach out to their local legislators, and felt it might be time for Bridgewater-Raritan to start doing the same.
Lazovick said that a 2.1 percent cap does not include costs that are out of the district’s control.
“The vast majority of increases are going to our staff,” he said.
The majority of the budget is tied up in salaries, at almost 58 percent.
Lazovick also said the district has a 30-year plan involving over $200 million of capital to fix windows, alarms, flooring and athletic fields. The roof at Eisenhower Intermediate School is also in desperate need of repair, which helped raise the 2.1 percent to 2.46 percent.
Starrs asked if he should prepare a budget resolution for later this month for 2.1 percent or 2.46 percent. He said he could prepare both, but was instructed by the board to go with 2.46 percent after an affirmative straw vote of the eight board members present.
The public hearing on Bridgewater-Raritan‘s 2019-2020 school budget is expected to be held April 30 at Milltown Primary School.