CHATHAM, NJ - The Chatham Board of Education held an Open Finance/Public Discussion meeting before its regular meeting on Monday night and received support from the majority of those in attendance to "Max the Tax" from its latest proposal of a 3.28 percent increase to the maximum allowed by the state of 3.62 percent.
Chatham is allowed to exceed the two percent cap because of its waiver for increased health insurance costs.
On March 19, LaSusa voted to introduce a preliminary school budget that called for a 2.98 percent increase over last year's budget.
That number was increased to 3.28 percent at the latest meeting of the finance committee, but the open finance meeting quickly turned to the option of the maximum allowed increase so that a school psychologist and an English or Math teacher could be added to the Chatham High staff.
The finance committee will meet again to finalize the budget, which will be voted on for adoption on April 30 and sent to the state for approval. The difference between a 3.28 percent increase and the maximum 3.62 is $210,000.
There is also the option of a second question, which would ask the public for approval to go over the 3.62 percent increase allowed.
Chatham Superintendent Michael LaSusa goes over the 3.28 percent increase at the special open finance meeting on Monday
Chatham High Principal Darren Groh spoke during the public portion of the meeting to explain why additional teachers were needed at the high school, which is expected to increase from 1,275 students this year to 1,345.
Groh (see below) pointed out that two years ago, there were seven English sections that were at or above the maximum class size and that it had increased to 19 sections at max or above. Two years ago, there were eight math classes at the maximum class size or above and this year there are 20. Two years ago, there were eight social studies classes at 24 students or above and now there are 16.
A number of parents and Chatham residents spoke about the fact that Chatham had the lowest per-pupil cost among 14 comparable school districts at $15,157 per student, and noted that it was nothing to be proud of. Sal Arnuk, board member, said he was "ashamed" of that number.
The highest amount spent per pupil on the comparable list was Princeton at $20,941 per student. Chatham spent the fewest per student among the lower half of the group that included districts which spend under $16,000 per student. That list includes Bernards, Madison, Westfield, Summit, Berkeley Heights and New Providence.
Board member Sal Arnuk talked about how adding a mental health professional would give Chatham the biggest bang for its buck in keeping the students safe
LaSusa responds to Arnuk's question about prioritizing the budget, bringing up the possibility of a second question
Samantha Ekert read a statement (see below) from Amanda Feeman, president of the Chatham Education Foundation, urging a maximum increase of 3.62 percent, and Chatham parent Marianne Hauck gave an impassioned plea for the same (see below).
Robert Nevin (see below) was one of two Chatham parents to oppose the "Max the Tax" wave with a reminder of the high New Jersey tax burden.
Matthew Gilfillan, chair of the board's finance committee, warned that "everyone in this town is going to see a very large tax increase."
At the start of the regular meeting board president Jill Critchley Weber (see below) summarized the discussion about the budget in the Open Finance/Public Discussion and said that this could be the year that calls for a "market adjustment" to get to "adequate staffing."