Education

Tentative School Budget Slated to be $144 Million, With 2% Tax Levy Increase

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BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Superintendent of Schools Victor Hayek gave the first of several presentations for a tentative 2015-2016 budget currently set at $144,591,252, a 1.07 percent increase from the year before.

Hayek said that putting the budget together every year is a balancing act.

“We look at our programs [and] where we’re going,” he said.

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Budgetary goals for the upcoming year include creating an educational spending plan that will help prepare students for their futures and ensuring a fair tax levy.

Goals also include maintaining academic programs, athletic clubs, opportunities in the arts, appropriate staffing and facility maintenance.

The proposed budget for 2015-2016, which has not been presented as final yet, is set at $144,591,252, just over a 1 percent increase over the 2014-2015 budget of about $143 million.

Business administrator Peter Starrs said they are recommending increasing the tax levy by 2 percent, the maximum allowed by the state. Exact tax figures are not yet available, as the district is still waiting on state aid numbers set to be released at the end of February, as well as other factors still being considered in the budget.

The budgetary plan faced some challenges such as changing enrollment demographics, impact of the Affordable Health Care Act and rising benefit costs, Starrs said.

But as for the enrollment, the decline is not as big as had been originally predicted in the demographer’s report. Enrollment this year is at 8,540.

“That is a little above what the demographer predicted,” Hayek said. “The decline is not as severe as was predicted.”

In the budget, Hayek said, they have allocated some funds for the possible implementation of full day kindergarten, including paying $250,000 for the installation of new bathrooms in some of the primary schools, as required by state law.

Included in the budget at this point are plans for facility projects that include track replacement at the Bridgewater-Raritan High School, partial gym bleacher replacement at the high school, district paving projects, BRHS building 700 carpet replacement with tile, refinishing the high school gym floor and painting the high school auditorium.

Board member Jeffrey Brookner expressed concern that the budget does not set money aside to give back to capital reserve.

“The budgets won’t get any easier,” he said, adding that roofs will need to be replaced soon before that becomes a necessity. “I think we need to at least keep pace with what we are spending capitally.”

Starrs said the left-over money from the budget could be given to capital reserve. Hayek added that with excess surplus money at the end of the year, they use it for tax relief and move it around to determine the best way to use it and provide for the district.

“We have to lessen the reliance on it, and the difference has to come somewhere,” Hayek said. “Then we can put together a plan and prioritize a long range facility plan and look at the things to be maintained.”

Board of education member Jacqueline Barlow said she was concerned about the plans for facilities projects, particularly with the tennis courts at the middle school needing to be completely replaced – those are not included in the budget at this time. The board did approve a resolution approving the engineer to design/spec and bid the Basilone track project and various paving projects, but not the tennis courts.

Once the bids are open, the board will then have to decide whether to award the projects at all.

Starrs said the facilities committee has not yet put forth a proposal to redo the tennis courts.

“I just want to question how we’re selecting what goes on the (facility repair) list (because) the tennis courts at the middle school are in total disrepair,” Barlow said.

Starrs estimated the rebuilding of the tennis courts to cost about $330,000 if the board of education were to approve the project. The courts, he said, have been off limits since last spring when they were closed down.

Hayek said the budget is still being discussed, but that they are moving forward.

“In the constraints of the 2 percent tax levy, maintaining the programs and staff is commendable,” he said. “The ability to move forward and make an investment is commendable.”

At this point, the board plans to hold a public hearing and approval of the tentative budget March 10 in a 3 p.m. meeting at the Bridgewater Senior Center on Somerville Road, before it is sent to the county for approval. Final approval of the budget will come in April.

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