BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The board of education has approved the introduction of a budget that uses all of the banked cap available from the last three years, and increases the tax levy by more than 4 percent.

“Budgeting is never easy, especially in a school district,” said Superintendent Russell Lazovick. “Together we work to provide a balanced budget that is close to last year’s goals.”

The budget is set at a total of $157,349,432, a 4.34 percent increase over the 2017–2018 budget of $150,805,628.

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As for the tax levy, it is set at $140,482,449, a 4.48 percent increase over last year.

For the tax rate in Bridgewater, for an average home assessment of $437,361, there is an increase of $53.26 per $100,000 of assessment.

In Raritan, for an average home assessment of $340,835, there is an increase of $31.59 per $100,000 of assessment.

“This proposal allows us to grow what students need, support staff and professional needs, invest in infrastructure and focus on long term planning,” Lazovick said.

Lazovick said the district also received an increase in state aid, from $9,648,898 in the 2017–2018 budget to $10,125,983 in the 2018–2019, so they have been able to hold off on the previously proposed policy to increase activity fees. The fees will stay the same for the coming year.

In order to exceed the 2 percent tax cap levy, according to business administrator Peter Starrs, the district is required to exhaust all of its spending authority. First, he said, is to accept an adjustment waiver regarding increases in health care costs, or close to $1.9 million.

Then, Starrs said, the administration has put together a budget that includes all the banked cap available to the district since the 2015–2016 school year. That is $1,391,233 from the 2015-2016 school year and $60,611 from the 2016–2017 school year.

Most of this money, between the adjustment waiver and the banked cap, is going toward permanent allocations, which the budget has included since last year for technology, facilities and curriculum.

In this budget, Starrs said, the district is funding 84 percent of the necessary permanent allocations for facilities, or $3,799,075; about 68 percent of allocations for curriculum, or $1,015,049; and 100 percent of the allocations for technology, or $1,315,000.

Resident Steve Singer said he supports the administration’s decision to take all the waiver and banked cap money.

“I applaud the foresight of the board to take all the money they could,” he said. “I know it’s hard on the taxpayers, but when we have a little bit of money, we have to use it.”

Allocated in the budget for facilities are fire alarm replacements at Bridgewater-Raritan High School, Hillside Intermediate, Milltown Primary and Bradley Gardens Primary; gym floor replacement at the high school; paving improvements at Adamsville Primary, Van Holten Primary and Bradley Gardens; and $500,000 in security improvements.

For curriculum, the budget allocates money for kindergarten through 12th grade improvements to social studies and media science; and improvements for technology for grades kindergarten through sixth.

Finally, for technology, the budget includes funds to maintain staff devices; maintain a two-to-one student ratio for devices; replenishes Smartboards and projectors; and supports most of the recommendations being made to improve technology for students in grades kindergarten through sixth.

Starrs said the budget also includes an elimination of one of the mIddle school late bus runs, reducing the number of late buses at the high school from three days per week to two days.

Board member Ann Marie Mead said she is concerned about doing that, and how it would affect the dates the clubs meet and how many students can participate.

“If there is a student who is in an activity and it meets on Thursday, is that now going to be on Tuesday or Wednesday?” she asked. “Or if there is a teacher staying late for extra help on a Thursday, will they be required to stay earlier in the week?”

Lazovick said they have discussed this change with BRHS principal Mark Morrell and BRMS principal Nancy Iatesta, and, based on the number of students participating in activities, this change will not impact many.

“Programs will still run, and this is something that can still support the kids staying after school,” Lazovick said. “The use of the late bus is extremely small.”

Mead said she is still concerned about cutting it, and would like to re-examine in September or October.

But, Lazovick said, there are still necessary changes to be made with regards to staffing, which makes up about 80 percent of the budget.

“We have been able to make it so we don’t make staffing changes in the coming year, but there are significant changes,” he said. “We have not been good at following the student population as it shifts. When we hire folks for certain positions, those things sometimes change, but we don’t change the staffing models.”

Basically, Lazovick said, the budget as introduced represents a reduction of 20 certificated staff positions and 15.5 support staff positions.

“The proposed budget does not leverage full time or part time moves,” he said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean we are getting rid of 20 positions, it could come through retirements and more.”

“And we are trying to make sure none of this affects the students,” he added.

Noreen O’Connor, special education assistant at Crim Primary, said she is concerned about what this change means for the teaching assistants.

“Are you saying our jobs are safe for next year, but then the following year, what?” she asked. “This really puts tremendous anxiety on us. This is not a real high paying job, but I think it’s a vital part of the district.”

Lazovick said they are working to make sure the staffing models follow the students.

“We have already hired some part time assistants, and we are trying to maintain full time employment for as long as possible,” he said. “As things shift and IEPs change, only where appropriate will we hire part time assistants for part time students.”

Lazovick said they are not moving full time positions to half time ones, but staffing changes are happening throughout the district.

Crim Road resident Kelly Avenoso said the most important thing for the students needing the teaching assistants is consistency. She said one of her sons worked with a teaching assistant, and part of the reason for his success was the consistency of who he worked with each year.

“The kids affected by this decision can’t come here and are not capable of speaking up,” she said. “Please do the right thing by these kids, they are depending on you.”

Another resident expressed concern that if the district is moving forward with half time employees, they will not get people who are as qualified or dedicated to their jobs as the full time hires. She said she is concerned about the potential for rapid turnover for students who would have difficulty adjusting to constantly having new assistants.

“We will go through the students and class sizes, and make sure we have appropriate staff members to meet the needs of the students,” Lazovick said. “We are looking at positions, and trying to maintain anyone who is full time.”

Board member Jeffrey Brookner said it is important to understand that those students who are assigned a single teaching assistant for a full day, based on an IEP, will still have a full time teaching assistant. He said that whatever the IEP requires will be what the students have, and the only changes to positions will come as there are changes to what the individual students need.

“I would not for a second consider supporting a proposal that makes a teaching assistant half time who is needed to be there full time,” he said.

In addition, Brookner said, he does not believe the district will have difficulty finding qualified people willing to work part time.

“Every person who applies for a job has their own circumstances,” he said. “Some can’t commit to full time.”

“And if we budget for part time and can’t find qualified people, Mr. Lazovick said we will find money in the budget to get full time people,” he added.

But, Brookner said, with the additional money in the budget, they are able to phase in any changes to full time teaching assistants, rather than have it all happen at once.

“There was a concern that maybe we won’t be able to find 40 people for part time all at once, and we don’t want to have to lower the quality,” he said.

The next step for the budget is to present it to the county superintendent for approval. The district is planning public forums at John F. Kennedy Primary April 16 and Bridgewater-Raritan Middle School April 18, plus a third forum at the Bridgewater Senior Center on a to-be-announced date.

Final adoption of the budget is expected April 24.