FAIR LAWN, NJ - The Board of Education approved a $114 million budget for the 2020-2021 school year last week, representing $13.44 per month tax increase for the average homeowner.

On April 30, the board approved the budget by a vote of 6-3, as dissenters, Emily Cohen, Vladimir Itkin and Wilkin Santana, explained they did not want to raise taxes during a time when many people had been laid off or otherwise suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"I think it behooves us to acknowledge hardship even just a little bit," Cohen said. She supported offering more cuts and giving some funds that may come from the state because of COVID-19 back to taxpayers, although that option is currently not on the table. 

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Superintendent Nick Norcia said $9 of the $13 per month tax increase was mainly due to the $25 million referendum approved by taxpayers last year, which paid for the two middle school's expansions and then spurred the need for additional staff to cover more classrooms to accommodate the increase in enrollment. The six elementary schools will change to K-4 and the two middle schools will now include fifth grade and house grades 5-8.

The tax increase for a home with the average assessed valuation of $332,371 will be $13.44 per month. The total budget is $113,956,797.

The Board of Education portion of the budget is approximately two-thirds of a property owner's tax bill. The municipal government and the county government usually make up the additional one-third of the remaining bill. The municipality announced a 0% increase for this year. The county has yet to announce its tax plan for 2020.

Included in the $13.44 is additional teachers for the completion of the new 5-8 middle school construction, an additional guidance counselor in each middle school, an
additional vice principal for TJ Middle School, and 6 elementary school teachers to help phase out the soft borders policy at the elementary schools.

Soft borders allowed the district to send a student, for example, from Lyncrest to Warren Point to ease crowding and was not popular. Also, included in the budget is increasing 1:1 computer devices to additional grade levels.

Norcia said the middle school construction is on target for completion by the fall. Gov. Phil Murphy's shutdown order in March excluded school construction, it was therefore allowed to continue.

Norcia said $500,000 in the budget was tagged to deal with coronavirus issues, such as distance learning and disinfecting of schools. And, there were approximately $1 million in administrative cuts applied to partially offset the tax increase.

Trustee Vladimir Itkin said he supported the budget as introduced in March, but with the drastic turn of events and the state shutdown, he felt adding $500,000 to deal with coronavirus was not justified. He voted no.

Trustee Wilkin Santana said he wanted to see what savings their were for the time the schools were closed, which was predominantly in April, to see if the dollar amount could offset expenses going forward.

"A tax increase is not the right thing to do," Santana said. "People are deciding whether to pay their mortgages or buy groceries."

Board member Mark Spindel said he was concerned about issues that could occur when the buildings open in the fall and felt further reductions in the budget would be harmful. He voted yes.

Trustee Elyss Frenkel said she felt it would be "irresponsible" to reduce the budget that supported the expansion and the needs of the students.

"We were uber responsible when we planned this budget," she said. "We kept the increase under the state mandated 2% cap increase. We have a plan, we should stick to it. And there may be additional problems that we need to prepare for going forward." She voted yes.

Board member Michael Rosenburg said with the stress of the fifth grade moving to the middle schools next year, he felt any additional cut were unwise.

"We need to continue to provide great education, our middle school plan is extremely sound," he said.