BRIDGEWATER, NJ - With no comments from either the board or the public, the Bridgewater-Raritan Regional Board of Education approved its $157 million budget Tuesday.

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.

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

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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.

Superintendent of Schools Russell Lazovick addressed concerns that had been brought up in previous meetings regarding the budget’s reduction of 20 certificated positions and 15.5 support positions.

Lazovick said it is the elimination of positions, but not necessarily people.

“The budget includes 36 fewer positions, but we worked to ensure that the people who are here are still here,” he said. “We saved a majority of the staff members.”

Lazovick said they were able to do that because of retirements and other circumstances. He said that, at this point, the district has only lost eight people.

“No tenured members have lost positions, some have moved,” he said.

Lazovick said that in trimming positions, they look at whether to renew staff based on performance, programs students need based on the number of students and the need to eliminate based on budget constraints. The first two evaluations have nothing to do with the budget itself.

In addition to staffing, other concerns expressed by residents had been regarding the elimination of a library/media specialist at the high school. Lazovick has said the kindergarten through 12th grade library program is being restructured to reduce the number of media specialists in the district from 11 to 10.

Members of the New Jersey Library Association reached out to Lazovick regarding the cut.

“It is our understanding that the district plans on implementing a K-12 media science curriculum for the next school year,” NJLA Executive Director Patricia Tumulty said in a letter to Lazovick. “We strongly support such an effort. However, we do not know how this can be successfully achieved if the school media specialist’s position at the high school level is eliminated.”

Tumulty said in the letter that school library media specialists receive graduate level training in literature, research and technology skills.

“A school media specialist is especially critical at the high school level,” she said. “Information literacy skills taught by school library media specialists provide students with a critical foundation for future academic success, particularly in college.”

The budget does include additional materials for the high school library, and current Bridgewater-Raritan High School media specialist Joanna Rose said at a previous meeting that she has seniority and will be moved to another position, so her salary will not be saved in the budget.

The issue of the high school media specialist was not addressed during the budget hearing Tuesday, and the line item is still cut in the 2018-2019 budget.

In terms of the budget as a whole, Lazovick said they began by working to create a balance and remain within a 2-percent increase.

“Everything in the budget was prepared and presented based on a revenue increase of 2 percent,” he said. “And an increase in state aid allowed us to put off some of the more drastic staffing changes that we want to do over time.”

“But no program is grown at the expense of another,” he added.

The second goal of the budget, Lazovick said, was to work to complete a two-year plan to use all the district’s banked cap before it was taken away. Banked cap each year only lasts for three years before it cannot be used.

But before using that banked cap this year, the district had to exhaust all of its spending authority, the first being to accept an adjustment waiver regarding increases in health care costs, close to $1.9 million.

From there, the district was able to use 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.

In this budget, according to business administrator Peter Starrs, 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.

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; replenish Smartboards and projectors; and support most of the recommendations being made to improve technology for students in grades kindergarten through sixth.

The district held several hearings over the past few weeks to discuss the budget with residents, and Lazovick said turnout was low.

“Most questions were specific to programs, and people who came out were knowledgeable,” he said. “No one was talking about numbers, they were talking about programs, and investing in safety and technology. It was more about what decisions we are making with the money we have.”

Lazovick said the overall goals of the budget were to create a responsible budget within a responsible cap, while also funding the permanent allocations.

“Any change coming through the budget process will raise specific voices throughout the community,” he said. “We need to look at all of the budget decisions as a whole. There is no plan to cut any of our programs, and we are working hard to build a sustainable foundation so we don’t dismantle what the students need.”