Mountainside School Board Authorizes Nearly Half-Million in Unexpected Payments to Berkeley Heights

MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ – Mountainside Board of Education authorized a payment of $469,595 to the Berkeley Heights Public Schools district, with half the amount to be paid during the current academic year and the remainder next year.

The payments officially approved at the Mountainside school board's Aug. 25 meeting are in fact for money owed for the 2013-14 school year, and represents a portion of the total Mountainside pays to send its freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors to Governor Livingston High School in Berkeley Heights.

The nearly half-million-dollar figure came as a result of what's called a reconciled budget, in which the difference is calculated between the cost Mountainside officials estimated prior to the start of the 2013-14 school year to send its students to Governor Livingston and the actual cost Berkeley Heights calculated after the 2013-14 academic year ended.

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The sum, which is a hefty amount for any municipality with a population of only about 6,700 to pay out, is certainly one of the reasons Mountainside school officials are investigating other high schools in the area to send its students, instead.

Having to pay the $469,595, “puts considerable amount of pressure on our district just to maintain our K-8 programs,” Mountainside Board of Education Member Dante Gioia said by phone on Aug. 28.

Reasons for the surprisingly large number, he said, are primarily higher-than-expected expenses and student enrollment at Governor Livingston.

“Our (Mountainside) enrollment has been going up and it looks like their (Berkeley Heights) enrollment has been going down. And we both had a difficult time estimating that,” Gioia said.

“We're anticipating an even larger reconciliation this year based on our 'back-of-the-envelope' calculations,” he said.

“Since 2011-12, our per-pupil tuition rate has increased at 5.2 percent on a compounded basis. That's what we're struggling with,” said Gioia, noting that the per-pupil tuition in 2011-12 for Mountainside students enrolled at Governor Livingston was $12,800, while the tuition for 2015-16 is estimated to be $15,700 per pupil. “If it would have grown at 2 percent, it would have been (only) at about $13,900.”

Mountainside Board of Education delayed authorizing the $469,595 payment until after a forensic accountant hired by the board reported that the 2013-14 reconciled budget was indeed correctly prepared by Berkeley Heights. A video of the accountant's presentation of findings from July 28 is published on the Mountainside School District website.

Whether Mountainside decides to send its students to another high school, which requires approval from the state commissioner of education, or negotiates a new send-receive relationship agreement with Berkeley Heights more to its liking, Mountainside school officials seem determined to find a better way of anticipating cost fluctuations.

“We're looking for tuition that's somewhat predictable, and the way it's laid out today, it's not,” Gioia said. “We certainly would like to have some sort of a fixed increase. That would be our preference.”

A large part of the problem, he said, stems from what he described as a “convoluted formula” the state uses to calculate per-pupil tuition.

The intent of state formula is “excellent,” said Gioia, explaining that it helps keep things “simple” and manageable for “budgeting and reconciliation purposes.”

“But it's not taking into account the fact that we're capped at 2 percent, and reconciliation and the catch-up (payments) could far exceed that,” he said.

Gioia said he has met with at least one member of the New Jersey State Assembly about the issue and plans to meet with other General Assembly and State Department of Education representatives, as well. 

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