BERNARDS TOWNSHIP, NJ -- Two-thirds of the increase in next year’s Bernards Township school budget will go to salary line items. As proposed, the total budget would increase by about $2 million, and keep all current school programs intact, even with expectations that student enrollment will continue a slow but steady decline.

The Board of Education has introduced a $107 million budget for the 2020-21 school year with a proposed increase of 2.2 percent over the current year. A public hearing is planned to be held at the William Annin Middle School at 7 p.m. Monday, May 4.

The 2020-21 budget was presented March 16 in the first “virtual,” or online, meeting in the school’s history. Public, administration and board members were connected by a computer conference call visible to the public, who could comment remotely.

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General operating expenses will rise to $99.55 million. The total budget increases by $2.1 million.

The school estimates a 1.89 percent increase in local property taxes. Bernards Township's tax rate for 2019 was $2.034 for each $100 of property assessment, with nearly two-thirds (or $1.339 per $100) of the total tax bill going to schools.

The average residential home was assessed at $625,281 in 2019, according to township records. That would mean that property paid $8,372 for schools.

The district estimates there will be more than 100 fewer students in the 2020-21 year – bringing the number to just over 5,000 – in the four elementary, one middle and one high schools.

Major reasons for increase

Major reasons for the $1.4 million increase in salaries are raises included in a new teacher’s contract, extended school year for some students and the cost of substitute teachers, according to the budget presentation.

In June, the board approved a contract that provides for salary guide increases of 3.16, 3.0 and 3.0 percent, respectively, over the next three years for teachers, secretarial, custodial and maintenance staff.

Current programs and services will be sustained, Business Administrator Rod McLaughlin said, and enrollment in a variety of programs will determine considerations for additional staff.  

In a February review of projected class sizes, Superintendent Nick Markarian said declining enrollment, particularly in the youngest grades, could bring the need to reduce staff by two or three instructional positions for the next school year.

In an email last week, Markarian said he anticipated “some constriction, perhaps simply through folks retiring and not being replaced.”

Enrollment in the district as of mid-October was 5,117, the sixth straight year of fewer students. Demographer Richard Grip has projected 5,002 pupils next year, 4,934 in 2021-22 and 4,819 in 2022-23.

Actual state aid amounts are $631,756, if the state budget passes as the governor proposes, and would pay for about $5.3 million -- less than 5 percent -- of the school district’s total budget.

The school anticipates a $475,000 decrease in capital costs, primarily because the Ridge High’s wellness center and turf at Lee Field will be paid off by June 30.

Paying off debt will require $5.4 million, nearly exactly the same as last year.

McLaughlin’s presentation of the budget is on the school’s website under "Board of Education" and then “presentations.”