CLARK, NJ – Parents filled council chambers Tuesday evening to hear the Clark Board of Education’s presentation on the proposed school budget for the 2017 – 2018 school year.  The budget was later approved unanimously by the Board.

Business Administrator Paul Vizzuso said that the projected school tax based on the 2016-2017 school year would be increased by about $122 per household (based on the average assessed value of $121,000) depending on the value of the home.

Before getting into the specific budget numbers, Superintendent Ed Grande reviewed a few key aspects of school budgeting to explain the district’s current financial status.

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One of the points he reviewed was the effect ratables have on the two percent cap to which school budgets are held. 

“You can almost think of tax revenue as money in a pot," Grande said. "That money in the pot, due to the two percent cap, is fixed.  The ratables, the industry, the housing… doesn’t make the pot larger.  The pot stays the same.  What happens is who fills that pot looks different.  Industry is contributing to that pot so that the taxpayers, the homeowners, have a less share.”

Last year there was a negative $17 impact on the average household because of businesses contributing to the pot of money Grande explained.

Grande said that in terms of state aid, Clark is fourth from the lowest out of the 21 districts in Union County. Only 3.4 percent of the Clark school budget is derived from state aid, he said.

Grande also explained that school budgeting is done on a two-year cycle. School year budgets run from July 1 through June 30.  He said the budget is audited after the end of each school year.  Any excess surplus found cannot be applied to the upcoming year as that budget is already “live.” 

“Districts must save… two percent of their funds.  Anything over two percent that is budgeted for and wasn’t actually expended goes towards excess surplus,” said Grande. 

During the audit of the 2015-2016 school year, no excess surplus was available, he said.

“Due to the two percent cap that school districts are restricted to, it makes it very challenging for a school district to [balance a budget] without extra surplus,” Grande said.

Grande said four factors resulted in a zero-excess surplus for the 2017-2018 budget: out-of-district special education tuition, transportation for those out-of-district students, decreased enrollment from Garwood students, and ROD projects.

Special Education

“When you look at the 2015-2016 school year, our special ed students… grew dramatically, much more than we anticipated," board member Robert Smorol said. "And we took a significant hit financially based on the growth in special ed. To send one special ed student out-of-district runs us somewhere between $50,000 to $90,000 per student.”

To keep student in district, the Clark cchool district is rolling out two new special education programs: high school self-contained and a transition program.  Grande said that they are working to provide quality programs for Clark students.

“We have to deliver a better product in the school systems to keep our students here,” added board member Thomas Lewis. “Let’s make special ed better.”

Clark resident Heather Warszawa asked why in the 2017-2018 budget there was a slight increase in special education with these new in-district programs.  Grande explained that it may take a few years for the district to see the cost savings of bringing these programs in house, keeping students in district. 

“We have students who, let’s say, are in the junior or senior year and are going to be going on to a transition program," Grande said. "We aren’t going to rip a student like that out of from a school they are succeeding in. So, the first few years you won’t see a decrease in out of district tuition.”

Garwood

“When we budgeted for our Garwood revenue, students coming from Garwood eighth grade into the high school… that number was lower than expected,” said Grande.  “Garwood overall, their enrollment is shrinking.”

Vizzuso said there was a loss of 13 Garwood students between 2016-2017 and the 2017-2018 school years when asked by resident Jerry Fogel.  Fogel than asked why the Board was quoting a $500,000 decrease in revenue from Garwood if there was only a 13 student decrease.

Grande later explained that the approximate $500,000 decrease in revenue was for the 2015-16 year. 

ROD Projects

“The district made a commitment to keep our facilities up to shape, to do what we call ROD projects…which are partially funded by the state and partially funded by the district,” said Grande.

He said restrooms throughout the district were updated and the windows at Valley Road School were replaced at a cost of $1,240,000. 

“We have to budget prior to being reimbursed because we can’t assume reimbursement until its in your hand,” said Grande.

Smorol said the renovations were desperately needed and the windows at Valley Road School were deemed unsafe prior to the upgrade.

Fogel asked when the reimbursement from the state would be coming in.  Smorol responded that some of the money has been received.  Vizzuso said that money must be used for capital reserve projects and not applied to operating expenses.

Budget Cuts

Grande said that budget cuts were needed to balance the budget for the 2017-2018 school year.  “We scoured the budget sheets to look for non-personnel items… we tried to make as many cuts as possible without sacrificing education from non-personnel,” he said.

Grande said $1.3 million in non-personnel cuts were made during that process, leaving the budget $500,000 short.  This money will come from personnel cuts, he said.

“We are making a strong commitment to make these personnel cuts non-classroom cuts," Grande said. "People that do not affect the children directly to the greatest extent possible.  With that being said, we will need to make some teaching and some certificated staff cuts.”

Grande explained that state law requires districts to inform any certificated staff (teachers, administrators, etc.) by May 15 if they have, with certainty, a position for the following year. 

“When you are talking about cuts of this type, we had to RIF (reduction in staff letters) all non-tenured certificated staff to protect their rights for the May 15 deadline.  That doesn’t mean every non-tenured staff member is not going to be brought back next year,” said Grande.  “There’s a strong commitment to bring back as many as possible and to let them know as soon as possible.”

Resident Kim Baglieri questioned how this personnel cuts would be done.  “We have the greatest teachers,” she said.

“I think it’s important that you have confidence in your superintendent in terms of his decision making as to what he thinks he needs to do from a personnel perspective,” said Smorol.  “And trust in the superintendent that he understands where we need the resources.”

During the presentation, Grande said that no academic programs are being removed as a result of budget cuts. 

Grand said in an effort not to compromise quality, the district is trying to “do more with less.”  He cited various new programs that are being rolled out to keep quality education and technology in the schools.  These include a new science elementary program, new high school courses and new STEAM lab at the high school.  (More information on the new programs can be found within the presentation posted online.)

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