Berkeley Heights Board of Education Presents Preliminary 2015/16 Budget: Mountainside Residents Question Tuition

Board of Education members: Back Row (left to right) Jimmy Longo, Chris Weeks , Bill Cassano, Denis Smalley, Doug Reinstein, John Sincaglia, Dr. Gerard Crisonino. Front Row (left to right) Jeanne Parker, MaryAnn Walsh, Helen Kirsch, Judy Rattner and Donna Felezzola.   Credits: Bobbie Peer

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The board of education introduced its 2015-2016 budget March 12, with the tentative spending plan, discussed and voted upon unanimously. The budget presentation can be viewed on the district website

The overall general fund has increased 3.07 percent, from $37,312,415 in the 2014-15 budget to $38,458,663.* With debt service down by 0.9 percent, the overall increase impacting tax payers is 2.9 percent or $174 on the average assessed home of $309,000. [Of the $174, the school budget accounts for $199 of the increase, while the change in Berkeley Heights ratables offsets the number by $25.]

*The cap for increasing the tax levy is mandated by the state to not go over 2 percent. The state allows the district to use "Banked Cap" funds to increase the budget beyond the 2 percent tax levy cap. "Banked Cap" funds accumulate when the district does not reach the 2 percent tax levy increase cap. Over the past years, the district has banked funds for future use.  The 2015-16 budget includes an additional $400,000 of the $1.3 million of "Banked Cap." (The remaining $900,000 of "Banked Cap"  will be lost.) 

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The district has also received its state aid numbers for the year, and is set to receive $1,169,261, which remains the the same as the 2014-15 state aid received.

Superintendent Judy Rattner said that the District's Mission Statement is at the core of the decisions that they make: providing world class, whole child education that offers equitable opportunities for all students.

"Every year is a struggle, this year is no different," said board member John Sincaglia, who leads the Financial Committee. "But I think we have a good responsible budget, that is going to do some enhancements -- coming in at a reasonable cost. I want to thank all of those that were a part of that."

Enrollment numbers are projected to decrease according to currently enrolled students as of January 31 and the use of projections of demographers. However, the special education numbers are increasing. "Most significantly, there are 14 more special education students at our high school level," said Rattner. 

The budget allows class policy to remain in terms of the class sizes; hire a full time world language teacher to develop an honors program; addition of special education staff to address needs and counseling needs that are IEP driven.

Full day kindergarten would be too costly for us to put into our budget, said Rattner. "We will make sure to address the needs of students and possible interventions with students at the kindergarten and first grade level, including reading specialists, as well as, instructional review in the area of mathematics and increase in expectations for summer school assistance."

The Special Education Department looked at student needs and the budget includes the opportunity to develop a program that will allow us to keep students in our district and possibly return students to the district, said Rattner.

The K-5 Social Studies curriculum is up for revision and the budget allows for new textbooks and resources for the Social Studies Curriculum.

Three "major increase areas" include 10.7 percent increase in tuition for Out of District Tuition [Special Ed and Union County Vocational Technical Schools], 6.9 percent increase in transportation includes the purchase of a 24 seat bus, and 17.1 percent increase in Capital that includes three ROD Grant projects. 

The budget includes $828,268 in facilities projects, including three ROD grant projects that will receive 40 percent state reimbursement for replacement of bathrooms, roof top exhaust fan replacement and roof repairs. Other projects include floor tile replacement, ceiling replacement, concrete paving repairs, repairs to air conditioning, clocks and fences, generator upgrades, and shower floor upgrade.

The capital equipment expenditures of $73,547 in the 2015/16 budget include the purchase of  a 24 passenger bus [replacing an existing 12 year old bus] along with technology infrastructure components and maintenance equipment. 

Rattner is not budgeting the cost of the next phase in addressing the parking at Gov. Livingston. "I'm not comfortable spending $100,000 to create parking spots for students when I could use the money for educational programs that enhance education," said Rattner.

The budget did not use the capital reserve. "This year's capital projects - we didn't want to touch capital reserve. Knowing we have things coming down the road, we wanted to leave it alone," said Sincaglia.

According to the revenue numbers presented, Tuition Revenue is increasing from $4,791,737 to $5,453,430 which represents a 13.8 percent increase. A majority of this tuition number represents the tuition paid by Mountainside for their students attending Gov. Livingston.

According to board members and confirmed by Business Administrator Donna Felezzola, the budgeted per pupil rate charged to Mountainside is jointly set by Felezzola and the Mountainside Business Administrator. The tuition number is based on the estimated number of students provided by the Mountainside Business Administrator. 

Mountainside owes $469,595 in back tuition for a correction in the actual cost per pupil using the state certified number and actual number of students for the 2013-14 school year.

The Berkeley Heights board negotiated with Mountainside to pay 50 percent of this bill in the 2015/16 budget year and 50 percent in the 2016/17 budget year. 

Mountainside resident Donte Gioia asked the board to sharpen their pencils when estimating the Mountainside per pupil cost. "We know what the [state certified] rate is and we know it in advance -- it may not be right -- it is better than the rate we keep getting," said Gioia. "We aren't asking for a fictitious number, we are asking for you to sharpen your pencils. When you lose 50 students, don't spend an extra $700,000 to $800,000." The Mountainside contract with the Berkeley Heights School district is currently in negotiations and is set to expire in 2017. 

The budget will be reviewed by the Executive County Superintendent and the Board will adopt the final budget at the May 7 BOE meeting.  

Article updated to reflect Mountanside Board of Education owes Berkeley Heights Board of Education $469,595 from the 2013-14 school year. This is based on the state certified rate and the actual number of pupils from Mountainside that were enrolled at Gov. Livingston that year. The action at the March 12 board meeting accepted 50% payment of that amount ($234,797) in the 2015-16 year and 50 percent in 2016-17.   

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