SPARTA TOWNSHIP, NJ – As budget time approaches, the township’s board of education took advantage of training from Dr. Bernard Baggs of the NJ School Boards Association.
Baggs spent an hour and a half before the board’s Monday, Jan. 21, workshop meeting educating the new members, and their more experienced colleagues, on the board's role in preparing a school budget and in the district finances.
Jack Surdoval and Kim Yeomans are rookie members. Karen Scott, also elected in November, served on the board previously.
Baggs went over some board basics before launching into the specifics of handling the district’s money. They included “leave administering to the administration, don’t micromanage,” and “warn the staff ahead of time of difficult questions.”
He acknowledged board members are seen as board members by the public no matter where they are, but pointed out they only function in that role while meeting with the other members. Baggs advised them to make sure the public always knows they put the children of the district first, respect the confidentiality of the students and staff, and cannot speak individually for the entire board.
The board’s role in budgeting is to develop a policy for financial oversight, appoint the district’s auditor, handling salary negotiations and set parameters for the budget, Baggs said. The board also approves the tentative budget that goes to the county superintendent of schools, schedules the public hearing on the budget and approves the final budget document. The school business administrator serves as chief financial officer for the district, he reminded the board members.
Because the district moved its school elections to November, the public does not get a chance to vote on the school budget unless it increases the tax rate by more than two percent. Baggs said the county school business administrator would not approve a budget with that impact unless there is a compelling reason.
“There can be no evidence of overspending in a particular category,” he said.
When he heard Business Administrator Linda Alverez had created a timeline for budget workshops, Baggs said, “Bravo, Sparta board.”
He said a schedule for budget meetings is very important.
Baggs also told the board they are responsible for the “governance” section of the school report card. That means they must understand policies and be prepared to answer questions from the county school officials during the Quality Single Accountability Continuum, known as QSAC (Quality Single Accountability Continuum), which comes up for Sparta on Feb. 19.
Things board members must know for that, and to convince the public they know what they are doing, include the educational goals of the district, the means to determine the effectiveness of the educational programs, the most effective way to connect with the community, and “school finance 101:” the general fund, special education budget, capital improvement fund and debt service.
“Have the business administrator give you an occasional tutorial,” Baggs suggested. “Their confidence is raised when the public sees educated officials” running the school district, he added.
He told the board they are lucky to have a K-12 district, because they see “the final product,” and know how students turn out when they leave the district, but they also have to “make sure the high school is terrific.
“You are Sparta,” he said. “There is a certain perception of Sparta in Sussex County.”
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