November 19, 2012 at 7:00 AM
MILLBURN, NJ—Whether the fact that it followed too closely on the heals of Superstorm Sandy or because it fell just before the Thanksgiving Day holiday, Sunday’s open public forum with the Millburn Board of Education produced very few attendees and only a sprinkling of questions.
Hartshorn School parent Dave Most praised Superintendent of Schools James Crisfield and his staff for keeping parents and other residents well-informed via emails and other communications during the storm.
Most said, however, that the school district should look into the purchase of backup generators and what role they could play in the future in getting schools up and running should the district face the type of electrical outages—lasting about two weeks-that it did during Sandy.
The cost of running entire schools off generators, if possible, probably would be prohibitive, according to school officials at Sunday’s forum.
School Business Administrator Steven DiGeronimo said the district’s best bet probably would be to seek a joint arrangement with the township, while board member Jean Pasternak said backup generators might be a good future investment, but the entire question of emergency management needed to be explored with the township committee.
It is no good to have the schools up and running if children and teachers cannot get to school, and this cannot happen if the township itself is not up and running, said board president Michael Birnberg and vice president Eric Siegel.
Crisfield said the district possibly could explore rental of a large generator unit to run many of the school electrical systems, maintain contact with the internet and keep the school pipes from freezing, but obtaining a generator to keep an entire building running probably would not be possible and the cost might be prohibitive.
Addressing the school budget process, parent Dilys So of Short Hills said residents could much more easily address the budget if they had year-to-year expenditure figures rather than just lists of the needs of the district and how items were budgeted to fill those needs.
DiGeronimo replied the board and administration had access to the year-to-year figures but those figures did not always reflect changes that occur during the year.
He added, however, the finance committee did go over budget proposals line by line and this would enable them to answer many questions raised by residents.
On capital expenditures, the administrator did estimate that expenditures for the coming year would come in at about the same $3 million range and they did this year.
Board member Lisa Chapman, current chair of the finance committee, said committee members would be able to track spending trends by reviewing budgetary figures supplied by the administration.
Pasternak noted that every school district has a different method of tracking expenditures, adding that the public probably would not receive the level of detail in the budget as the finance committee receives.
The board does probably need to look more closely at the amount that is spent in each category, said board president Michael Birnberg.
The decision to eliminate the public vote on the school budget does have some positive aspects, the school superintendent said.
The budget now will be certified after the public hearing in March, thus making it official three weeks earlier than before, when the district had to wait until election results were final to determine its spending levels for the coming year.
Although there was some initial concern about elimination of the budget vote, Pasternak said, the school board has added school-based “listening sessions” to gain more public input on needs in particular schools.
Chapman said six of the sessions have been held already with an additional three scheduled.
These sessions give the board a good idea how to map resource allocation and to determine if projects need to be postponed for a short time or costs need to be spread out by as much as five years, she added.
In addition, according to the finance chair, the sessions give board members more insight into non-budgetary concerns as they are surfacing in the schools.
Birnberg noted, however, that the education body has 20 meetings a year and sets aside listening sessions at each of those meetings where any member of the public can express concerns on any topic.
Pasternak replied that there was more open dialogue at the school-based sessions and, at board meetings, the board president can decide whether other board members are allowed to speak.
“We represent 51 percent of the residents, not just those who have children in the schools,” Siegel replied, “and only parents with children in the schools often are invited to the in-school sessions.”
Pasternak replied that this year the Short Hills Association, which raises many budgetary questions, was invited to the in-school sessions.
On another topic, resident Lucinda Mercer asked about what percentage of the budget is devoted to special education and what how much of the special education budget is paid for by the federal government.
Crisfield replied that almost all federal funding of special education comes from IDEA (Individuals with Disability in Education) aid.
He added, in its budget planning, the district has a roster of special education students who are educated outside the district and those students generally move up to the next grade level.
Many of those students, however, attend non-public schools and the tuitions for those schools do not fall under the same budgetary”cap” restraints as the public schools.
Thus far this year, he added, though, tuitions are projected to be about the same in the next budget year as in this year with some increases.
Pasternak added many of the costs of special education are difficult to track because those costs are “embedded” in other budgetary categories.
She noted, however, that Millburn has one of the lowest out-of-district special education rates in the “J” factor group.
“We provide many of the basics early in their education so these children are better prepared in the later years—especially in the fifth and sixth grade,” she said.
Birnberg noted, however, that 12 percent of the Millburn district’s students are classified in special education categories.
He said it is not that difficult to trace the “marginal” costs of special education in the district, especially since figures are available about the amount of time individual instructors spend in resource rooms with children pulled from regular classes.
Sunday's forum took place in the newly-refurbished Millburn Middle School auditorium. The auditorium also will be the site of the regular board meeting on Monday, November 26 at 7:30 pm.