March 26, 2014 at 11:36 AM
SUMMIT, NJ—A 2014-2015 school operating budget totalling $64,663,547 was unanimously approved on Tuesday by the city's board of school estimate.
Because Summit is a Type I school district the city's mayor appoints the members of the board of education and the board of school estimate gives final local approval to the school budget.
This year's board of school estimate is chaired by Mayor Ellen Dickson and includes board of education president Gloria Ron-Fornes, board operations chairman David Dietze, and common council members Mike McTernan and Patrick Hurley.
The $64.6 million education spending plan approved by the school estimate board on Tuesday will result in a municipal property tax increase of $81.40 for 2014 on the average Summit home, assessed at about $410,000 and worth about double that in market value. Although the spending plan will result in a tax increase of less than one percent over the course of the budget cycle, the increase will be slightly higher over the two city calendar years included in the school budget.
During a school board meeting prior to Tuesday's board of school estimate vote school body members expressed their support for the spending proposal and praised school administration and staff members who put the spending plan together.
Board member Richard Hanley said the budget balanced the needs and wants of the community, while maintaining educational goals and seeing the the city's taxpayers were fairly treated.
Despite many challenges, including an increased enrollment at Summit High School, and other cost increases, according to board member Edgar Mokuvos, the need for educational quality was balanced with the needs of taxpayers.
Board member Katherine Kalin, noting that the budget came in well under the state-mandated 2 percent “cap” on spending increases, credited the work of assistant superintendent for business Louis Pepe and his staff, Dietze and his committee, and other district administrators in maintaining quality and meeting the needs of students and school staff.
School board vice president Celia Colbert said the budget helped maintain a high quality program while fulfilling facilities needs and was”the product of a series of sustainable choices.”
Prior to the board of school estimate vote, Dietze thanked Pepe and his assistant, Donna Schneider, along with operations committee members Colbert and Hanley and superintendent of schools Nathan Parker.
The budget resulted, Dietze said, from “the continuity of fiscal management and operational efficiencies to ensure a sustainable quality education.”
He added that all city taxpayers benefitted from a high quality educational establishment in the Hilltop City because that helped maintain their high property values.
The sound budget was made possible in the face of a state mandate for the 2 percent cap on spending and the “unfair burden” placed on Summit taxpayers by the spending of Union County government, Dietze said.
Despite these factors, the operations committee chairman noted, the district was able to introduce a pilot program of tuition-based fullday kindergarten, due to begin in the fall of 2015, and add another athletic trainer and an additional coach for the high school forensics team.
Among the challenges faced by the district, he said, are negotiations with all employee bargaining units, with results affecting about 80 percent of district spending, the loss of Merck & Co. Inc.'s campus in the city, which affects about 10 percent of the city's tax base, and a drop in home values since 2007-2008.
Ron-Fornes noted that the budget still maintained the district's goals of student achievement and fulfilling physical and emotional needs while coming in under “cap” during the last five budget cycles.
She praised Parker, Pepe, their staffs and school administrators for looking for savings without cutting programs while maintaining educational standards and not only meeting, but exceeding Core Curriculum guidelines.
The board president also cited the many contributions of such volunteer organizations at the Summit Education Foundation, SPARC and the booster organizations.
She added the city should be proud of all its students and parents.
Also praising the hard work of Pepe, Schneider and the school administrators, McTernan said the administration was gracious in providing information requested by council members of the school estimate board.
Excellent schools, he added, while making up about 50 percent of overall city tax bills, were among the most important assets of Summit's residents and were deserving on their support.
He also praised Pepe and his team for trimming items such as employee healthcare costs and investing the savings in teachers.
McTernan did, however, suggest that the school district's budgetary process could be more transparently explained on the district website and pledged to help it achieve that goal.
The council budget committee chairman added, however, that the fact that the county “can't get its act together” on spending caused localities to make more difficult choices than necessary.
Hurley also praised the school administrators for maintaining minor increases in school taxes and responding to the many demands made upon them by council members during the budgetary process.
A school parent “of 19 years and counting,” the Second Ward representative also expressed his pride in the city schools.
He too decried the county tax burden and the state equalization formula which, he said, in the long run, would hurt the most vulnerable members of society.
Dickson, noting that property taxes in Summit averaged more than $16,000 last year, said that the city of Elizabeth only paid about $2,200 per pupil in local funds for city schools while obtaining support for full-day kindergarten and other programs.
Summit's public schools, on the other hand, the mayor said were pretty much “self-funded.”
She also noted that in 2011 Summit residents sent about $168 million to Trenton and received a return of only $1 for every $30 sent.
The proud mother of graduates of the Summit schools who are very successful in their professional lives, did suggest, however, that the city's public schools make an effort to work with the city's privately-operated full-day kindergarten programs so those programs could set up scholarships to ensure room for city youngsters in their operations.
Pepe said the budget was kept under control through a combination of zero-based and site-based budgeting. He also praised Schneider and the rest of his staff and Parker, and complimented Dietze for his “consumate professionalism.”
He also said the district continued to meet goals set when he first joined Summit schools of meeting capital needs with less spending of city bond funds and developing five-year budget plans.
Responding to a question from the mayor, he noted bids on the schools renovation projects had come in $1.2 million to $1.3 million less than anticipated because the district was “first out” in the bidding process.
He also said costs were kept low by applying for state RODs grants and appealing initial denials of RODs funding to receive additional grants.
He said ground would be broken for most projects this June, with the new high school boilers expected to be in by October 15, the middle school auditorium renovations and science laboratory upgrades in by the beginning of next year, Jefferson and Franklin School additions completed by September 2015, and roofing and other projects expected to wrap up during the summer.
Parker attributed the success of the budgetary process to a “strong partnership of the operations and political systems.”
He praised Pepe's staff and the school administrators for working to obtain the best budget and the “vigorous and respectful back and forth” between school estimate board members and district staff.
The superintendent welcomed suggestions for more transparency such as those made by McTernan and thanked parents, common council members and staff members for their attendance at the school estimate board meeting.