MILLBURN, NJ - The Board of Education on Monday approved a 2014-2015 school budget totaling $88,288,998 to be submitted to the Essex County superintendent of schools for review.
The spending plan would result in an increase in the local tax levy of 2 percent in support of the general fund. Factoring in debt service, the increase would be 1.85 percent. This would result in a 2014 tax rate of $964 per $100 of assessed valuation, increasing the school tax on a property assessed at $1 million by $114 for school purposes, and the school tax on a property assessed at $2 million would increase by $227.
Largest increases in the spending plan include $736,489 more for employee benefits and $135,077 more for special education, while general administration would drop by $284,867 and operation and maintenance by $146,027.
Commenting on the budget, Budget Committee Chair Emily Jaffe said the committee, in its review of the spending plan, agreed with statements made last week by Superintendent of Schools James Crisfield about the rising costs of employee benefits presenting “structural issues that we, as a community, cannot ignore.”
Jaffe added that innovative budgetary solutions will be needed in the future to meet the issues pointed out by the superintendent.
On another issue however, continuing questions about non-resident students reportedly attending township schools and the costs of these students to the district continued to be raised by residents.
Former board member Josh Scharf, a frequent critic of the school body, said the report done by verifyresidence.com for the board disputed figures cited by property committee chairman John Westfall-Kwong in his report of last week which said there were potentially only 52 non-resident students attending Millburn schools.
The summary of the verifyresidence.com report, obtained by Scharf from the school district under the state's open public records act, compared student-supplied addresses with two major database aggregators and the United States Postal Service-National Change of Address Database.
In the first database, there were 3,740 matches between the provided address and the database, 541 where the provided address did not match the address in the database and 693 instances where there was no name in the database associated with the provided address.
In the second database, there were 3,070 matches, 675 instances where the provided address did not match the address in the database and 1,229 instances where there was no name in the database associated with the provided address.
The postal service database contained 43 “no matches” of which eight were complete “family” change of addresses.
According to the report, “no match,” in addition to the provided name not being associated with the provided address, also could result from the person with the name provided moving within the school district without notifying school authorities, the provided name may not include the most current married name, the provided name was misspelled, hyphenated or missing or the provided address was misspelled or incorrectly submitted.
Reasons for “no record,” according to the report, might include the fact that no record existed for the name provided or there was no matching record on file of the provided address being associated with the name provided.
The report continued, “A 'No Match' designation does not necessarily mean or confirm an out-of-district student status, rather that further inquiry is required to determine the reason for the no match. This is often the case with typos in the sumission, very young parents, single parents, and student parents who may still be living at home or with other family members.”
Scharf said the budget was directly related to enrollment and the numbers in the report continued to raise concerns, brought before the board in the last few months about “who is here and who is not.”
He added that, despite implications by Crisfield that issues about non-residency were being raised because certain nationalities were not welcomed in the township, even people with Asian surnames who made comments about a petition to change school residency policies were upset that people were “gaming the system” and asked that fraud be prevented.
Scharf also said that, although he also came across “false positives” in dealing with many databases in his business, he did investigate those readings further.
Former board member Lise Chapman also said the board should investigate items raised in the report further. She also took issue with a statement in a letter to parents by the superintendent this week that a change in policy toward those students who move out of the district in the middle of school year only would affect about 10 students.
Chapman also urged the school body members who had not seen a copy of the verifyresidency report to do so, and added that the board members should realize it was the duty of the superintendent of schools, not the board, to enforce residency policy.
However, Sheila Bari of Falmouth Street said discussions of the relatively minor issue of non-resident students had taken up an inordinate amount of time that the board should spend discussing more important issues.
Lauren Hollender, co-president of the Deerfield School Parent Teacher Organization, congratulated the board on keeping the tax increase at 2 percent.
She also said that it was unfair to treat those who moved out of the district in February as “persona non grata” the minute they were out the door.
However, former board member Noreen Brunini warned there was a financial cost for allowing non-resident students to attend schools in the township and this cost was not a small amount, especially in light of choices the district had been forced to make since 2010 in the face of declining revenues.
On another matter, former board member Abby Kalan and Chapman wanted to know why a curriculum supervisor position, at a cost of about $130,000, was being included in the budget.
Kalan wanted to know what responsibilities would remain for assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction Christine Burton in light of the new position and why Millburn felt compelled to institute the position when districts with similar obligations had not instituted similar positions.