BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – For the first time in a long time, residents will see their school tax levy reduced. The tax rate for the 2012-13 year will be $2.109 per $100 of assessed value. The 2011-12 rate was $2.113. The school tax bill for the average home will decrease by about $12.55 if the budget is approved by the executive county superintendent on Monday and adopted by the board on Thursday, March 22.

The operating budget is down $612,169 to $35,520,653, and debt service is up $72,311 bringing the total tax levy to $37,220,249. That’s $539,858 less than the 2011-12 school year, or minus 1.4 percent. The budget itself is up 2.5 percent to $43,018,893.

State aid increased significantly to $1,123,170 from $426,204 last year.

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When introducing this preliminary budget at the Board f Education’s Thursday, March 1 meeting, Superintendent Judith Rattner said, “We believe that we are continuing to provide a strong academic program to our children in Berkeley Heights.”

In fact, much has been added and/or returned to the program.

  • HELP teachers will be returned at the third grade level to improve learning.
  • There are several technology improvements – an increase in bandwidth to help interconnectivity between the schools and on the Internet; 172 classroom and laptop computers will be replaced; six interactive projectors and 32 iPADS will be purchased.
  • Middle school sports will be funded by the school. Last year parents paid for half of the program.
  • There is a return to doing regular maintenance projects – the science, biology and family and consumer labs at Governor Livingston will be upgraded; all schools will have replacements for a few ceilings, floors and countertops. The floor tiles that will be removed are asbestos. Lockers will be replaced. Paving projects are planned with the help of the county. The district pays for the supplies and the county does the paving.
  • Two emergency generators will be purchased – one for the middle school and one for Governor Livingston. This will allow one of the schools to be used as an emergency shelter. The administration has asked for a FEMA grant to help fund the project.
  • Some maintenance equipment dating back to 1969 and 1970 will be replaced.
  • A new school bus will be purchased.
  • Two additional servers will be bought.
  • $375,000 will be deposited in the capital reserve to save for the eventual replacement of the roof at Woodruff School and the running track, among other projects.

In regular education initiatives include:

  • Introduction of a new elementary reading program.
  • Continued development of the kindergarten, bringing “specials” back into the classroom – art, music and physical education.
  • Increased teacher training in the new reading program, additional Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB) training, the teacher evaluation program and training in differentiation on instruction, recognizing that each child is in a different place.
  • One first grade teacher will be added, based on enrollment.

New, in-district special education programs are being created at the elementary level. This will allow special education students to stay in-district and provide tuition from students who want to attend Berkeley Heights schools from out-of-district. A special education supervisor will be hired, as will a part-time learning disabled teaching consultant/anti bullying specialist, and 1.2 additional resource room teachers.

Board Secretary and School Administrator Donna Felezzola said the district has saved money in a number of ways. “We started the Green Schools Program to change people’s habits and how they use energy. We looked at the building schedules, when heat was on and off and significantly reduced our energy costs by more than $250,000.”

The district also participates in several buying cooperatives, and as mentioned earlier, is starting in-district special education which will save on both tuition and transportation costs.

The preliminary budget passed unanimously at Thursday’s meeting with board member Denis Smalley asking that the cost for employee benefits be reviewed before final adoption. He said history indicates the $7.8 million projected will come in at about $1 million less.