LIVINGSTON, NJ - The Livingston Board of Education approved a tentative district operating budget of $108,926,973 for the 2014-15 academic year, at a voting meeting on Monday night.
The budget prioritizes special education programs and staffing increases, while staying under the two percent state cap on annual budget increases. It will now be submitted to the Executive County Superintendent of Schools for further examination. Final budget approval will commence on April 28. Livingston residents can raise objections, concerns or questions up to that time, according to district Business Administrator Steven Robinson.
[A full breakdown of the budget is available on the district’s website].
While the Board unanimously approved the measure, board member Arthur Altman took care to note that his affirmative vote was “tentative.”
“I’m aware that Dr. [John] Alfieri and Steve spent months and months working on this budget and I appreciate that,” he said. “I just want to make sure everything is thoroughly vetted and justified.”
Altman requested an explanation of how the budget is constructed, specifically, what type of accounting was used to arrive at the final number.
Robinson explained that the district uses a hybrid style of budgeting that incorporates both historical budgeting and zero-based budgeting. Historical budgeting uses past financial statements as a baseline measure, and incorporates new costs as needed; zero-based budgeting operates under the assumption that the value of the budget is zero and all costs must be justified starting from that baseline.
Historical budgeting comes into play when measuring the spending per pupil. That allotment is based on past spending and is adjusted for population and demographic changes. Zero-based budgeting is primarily used when examining potential new programs to be added. Existing programs must also be examined and their costs justified, according to Robinson.
“In October, I started talking with principals, teachers and department heads,” Robinson said. “We talked about what they needed and what programs we should prioritize.”
To that end, zero-based budgeting was the primary method used, according to Alfieri. He explained that he made assessing instructional and programming necessity the top priority for this first budget.
“When a superintendent has been in the same place for five years, they often approach the budget by examining something new or controversial,” he said. “But because this is my first budget, I wanted to assess the value of all our programs and everything we do.”
Citing concerns over a tax increase, Altman asked if every line-item in the budget was justified. “We’re spending $2 million more than last year’s budget. My feeling is you should not go to the taxpayer unless absolutely necessary.”
“I didn’t go pencil-by-pencil, but I know the numbers by heart, line-by-line. I think about them in my sleep,” Robinson said.
“Could we lower the budget?” he asked. “Absolutely. But what’s the point of delaying things? If you delay capital projects that’s just going to bite you down the road. We could delay the purchase of math textbooks for sixth through eighth grade, but we feel we need them now. You weigh these things, and prioritize, and say ‘this is what we want to do now.’”
Robinson also noted that the original incarnation of the budget was $1.6 million over the state cap. The budget presented to the Board was under cap with no program cuts.
“We’re very fortunate.” Robinson said. “Other school districts had to make major sacrifices to get under the cap.”
Altman also requested a side-by-side comparison with Livingston’s peer districts of each line-item in the budget.
“There might be some areas where we’re higher or lower or somewhere in the middle [in spending],” Altman said. “I don’t think it’s an unreasonable request to know why we’re higher or lower in some areas.”
Comparing budgets between school districts is rarely an apples-to-apples comparison, according to Robinson. Districts often have different bookkeeping methods and designations. As an example, he cited the position of Athletic Director (AD). Livingston counts its AD as a school administrator, while other districts might budget the same position under the broader spectrum of the athletic department.
“One thing I will never do is gimmick accounting,” Robinson said. “Some districts will introduce an artificially low budget with a zero or negative tax increase one year and then try to make that up. Usually they end having to cut programs. Neighboring districts have been hurt by it.”
Board President Barry Funt also pointed out that peer districts might have disparate budgets simply because they have different priorities.
“Some districts might have to make up for capital funding because they didn’t plan ahead like we did,” Funt said. “In terms of per-pupil spending, we’re extraordinarily competitive with our peer districts.”
Funt also affirmed his trust in Alfieri and Robinson’s budgeting priorities.
Board member Leslie Winograd agreed with Funt, saying “If someone has an objection to a specific item in the budget, we should definitely examine it. But to make [Robinson] go through it line-by-line and then have to call other districts to learn how they designate their budget is a waste.”
During the session’s public comment, resident Ronnie Spring expressed gratitude to Alfieri, Robinson and the Board for the budget.
“Livingston has intangibles that you can’t necessarily compare to other districts,” he said. “This budget is really about the kids. If you go comparing it to other districts looking for things to cut, it becomes less about the kids and more about money.”
Another Livingston resident urged the Board to consider using the district’s bank cap allocation to further address the need for increased staffing at Livingston High School. The bank cap is comprised of state funds that were saved as a result of staying under the state cap in 2011; it is in excess of $400,000.