SUMMIT, NJ—Summit school officials on Thursday detailed their proposed $64,663,547 2014-1015 education budget for the city’s board of school estimate.
As a Type I school district, with school board members appointed by the mayor, the Hilltop City district presents its budget plans to the board of school estimate, which decides the fate of the spending plan. This year’s school estimate board, chaired by Mayor Ellen Dickson, includes board of education president Gloria Ron-Fornes, school operations committee chairman David Dietze, common council finance chairman Michael McTernan and council public safety chairman Patrick Hurley.
Outlining specifics of the budget were superintendent of schools Nathan Parker and assistant superintendent of schools for business Louis Pepe.
Pepe estimated the tax bite of the proposed budget on the average Summit home, assessed at $410,000, at $81.40 per year or $6.78 per month.
Although the largest expenditure in the budget, $23,583,280, also showed the largest increase, $867,612, school officials were reluctant to discuss specifics of teacher salary increases because they did not want to show their hand too early in ongoing negotiations with teacher and supervisor unions.
Parker did indicate, however, that he could obtain some salary figures from building principals and would reveal them at a later date, possibly before the board of school estimate votes on the proposed budget on Tuesday, March 25.
Dickson did ask that school officials, in their bargaining deliberations, keep in mind that the city will be losing the Merck corporate headquarters shortly, and, although the pharmaceutical giant will not appeal its tax assessment for 2014, an appeal could come in 2015.
Pepe pointed out, however, that operation of plant and maintenance services would decrease by $218,356 and tuition paid by the district to send Summit students to other districts (chiefly for special education classes) would decrease by $209,710 in the proposed budget.
He noted that, through a number of fiscal management tools, such as the district’s membership in a number of buying consortiums, Ed-Data, for the purchase of data services, Erate for the purchase of certain telecommunications services under a federal program, and the Alliance for Competitive Energy Savings (ACES) the Summit district has been able to save $6.8 million over the last five years.
One of the savings programs which drew strong support from the council members on the school estimate panel was shared services program between the school district and the city of Summit.
Pepe noted that the city’s public works garage repairs board of education vehicles and the district makes use of the services of the city engineer and public works employees in paving some school parking lots, while school board custodians maintain city facilities at Tatlock and Wilson Fields and the field adjacent to Brayton School and that Douglas Orr, the school district’s technology director, recently helped the Summit Fire Department set up computerized training systems.
Although supportive of the shared services arrangements, Hurley said he would like to see definite line items established in both the city and school district budgets indicating specific year-to-year savings from the programs.
Pepe and Parker also responded to questions from Hurley that they would seek increased sharing of technology between the two entities, but they said the differences in systems between the schools and the city presented some challenges.
The school business administrator also indicated that the district began saving money on employee health care by instituting employee contributions one year before the state mandated the contributions. He also said the employee assistance program and employee wellness programs made the district’s claims experience more favorable and thus more cost efficient.
Parker noted that an unexpected benefit to the district from the Affordable Care Act has been that Summit teachers who reach age 26 opt out of the district’s health plans because they can remain on their parents’ plans longer.
The school district’s pilot tuition-funded full-day kindergarten program drew a mixed reaction from the mayor and council members of the board of school estimate and support from one parent who spoke.
McTernan wanted to know the tax impact of the new program.
Pepe replied that the cost has been about $100,000 and the district has been able to save on instructional costs because teaching staff members formerly in the existing half-day program will be moving over to the fullday program.
Responding to a question from Dickson, Pepe said the district expects to institute a credit card system for payment of tuition just as it has successfully done with the middle school lunch program, and tuition payments will be carefully tracked so that parents who fall behind in tuition payments will be promptly notified that their children may be barred from future classes if their obligations are not met.
McTernan said that, based on his calculation using the board of education’s total cost, the cost of fullday kindergarten is about $7400 per pupil. "But that is a marginal cost,” he added. The council finance chairman said, and Hurley agreed, that the public deserved to know the true cost figures for the program, including not just marginal costs like new teachers, but also allocated fixed costs, especially since this is a pilot program that is being evaluated year to year.
Pepe promised an accounting of those costs prior to the March 25 vote.
Dickson, as she has in the past, said she felt the public schools should “embrace” the programs run by synagogues, churches and charitable organizations in the city rather than trying to compete with them.
The district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.Julie Glazer, replied that the public schools work closely with the other organizations, but the focus of other programs often is different educationally from programs the public schools can offer.
She did point out, for example, that the public school district works closely with a synagogue program and that program, in fact, asked to use a report card system similar to that currently used in the city district.
A parent who spoke said the district should be leary of offering only a pilot program for fullday kindergarten.
She said that 80 percent of the districts in the state already offer full-day programs and the Core Curriculum program, which is becoming standard in New Jersey, will require learning skills now taught in the first grade to reach down to the kindergarten level.
She also said Connections next year will be reducing programs it sponsors at Jefferson and Wilson Schools in Summit. She wanted to know where students not able to attend those programs would go.
Dickson replied that more affluent communities in the Summit area are not offering full-day programs that must be funded with public money because those dollars must come chiefly from local taxpayers. In some less affluent areas, she added, the state is paying the cost.
The parent replied, however, that most of the districts in the “J” factor group into which Summit now falls offer full-day programs.
On the topic of school security, Dickson asked what the Summit district was doing to increase school security, expecially in light of statements at a recent conference that there were security weaknesses at some of the school entrances.
Pepe noted some of the $1.8 million being taken out of the district’s capital reserve this year would be used to address those issues and replace obsolete security equipment.
He added that some of the $17.5 million in capital funding approved last year by the school estimate board would be used to increase security in Washington, Franklin, Jefferson and Lincoln-Hubbard Schools.
Hurley, whose occupation deals with corporate security, said the district needs to hire a consultant with a background in security, not just an architect, to address the issues.
He added that the Sandy Hook Elementary School, the site of a mass shooting last year, had protected vestibules, like the Summit district is proposing, but more protection is needed to stop access from windows adjacent to vestibule areas.
Pepe said after the major construction projects are completed the district would more fully assess what other security improvements are needed.