LIVINGSTON, NJ — In addition to beginning its discussion on budget goals for the upcoming fiscal year, the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) also received an update on the current year’s budget from Business Administrator Steven Robinson, who reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many unexpected obstacles, but that Livingston Public Schools (LPS) is “prepared for the challenges.” 

Although the current year’s budget had included a $1 million Crisis Management account that Robinson said helped to prepare the district for unexpected ramifications of the pandemic and put LPS “in a much better place than many other districts,” there have been three primary areas of revenue shortfalls as a result.

One major shortfall was a reduction of $541,000 in state aid compared to what was initially expected when the district adopted its 2020-2021 budget was adopted. According to Robinson, the district typically receives about $150,000 for rental of facilities and fees collected through subscription busing, which amounts to approximately $300,000 that will not be realized this year as a result of the pandemic.

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However, COVID-19 expenses have also had a significant impact on the budget.

According to Robinson, additional technology licensing fees and added Wi-Fi costs totaled $50,000; personal protective equipment (PPE) has cost $310,000 to date; HVAC testing has cost $55,000 thus far and continues to grow; and the tents erected for in-person instruction, which have been recently removed but will return in the spring, cost an additional $70,000.

There will also be an additional cost of $30,000 to replace the MERV-13 filters for the third time, and staffing costs have increased in the last few months due to sick leaves and proctoring costs, Robinson added. Since the district is not currently serving lunch, the usual small profit provided through food service will also be missed.

Robinson reiterated that there were some savings within the budget as well as a result of the pandemic.  The cost of PPE, for instance, is declining as more products become available, and the cost of travel expenses, which is typically budgeted for, has not been necessary since March. The cost for overtime, paper and other expenses that the district typically incurs are also on the decline this year, Robinson said.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has provided a $79,561 reimbursement to LPS, and the Coronavirus Relief Fund will bring in $171,000 as well, according to Robinson.

As there were two $1 million line items adopted in this year’s budget—including the Crisis Management Account and an Emergency Fund Reserve—Robinson stated that LPS is “going to be okay unless something crazy happens” and “should be fine for the rest of the year.”

In response to an inquiry from LBOE member Samantha Messer, Robinson also clarified that any unspent monies can either be used for tax relief or transferred to the capital reserve fund. The emergency fund cannot exceed $1 million, he added.

As the board begins to draft the district budget for 2021-2022, LBOE President Ronnie Konner led a brief discussion summarizing each board member’s priority items for the coming year.

Konner said she seeks to incorporate budget items that will maintain class size guidelines; continue prioritizing the health and safety of students and staff; provide professional development opportunities that promote equity; and support diverse hiring practices.

Citing the inhibited learning that has occurred as a result of hybrid and remote learning over the last several months, Konner added that the board should assess and remedy any learning losses the students may have exhibited as they consider the budget for the next academic year.

Konner’s other budget goals include hiring a consultant for the strategic plan process and “keep[ing] taxes for only what is totally necessary.”

In addition to agreeing with many of the initiatives Konner noted, LBOE member Pamela Chirls also said she seeks to expand a high-quality continuum of special education services at LPS. 

Chirls stated that using data analysis expenses to evaluate math curriculum for lower-elementary grades and identify the next stops for the upper-elementary students as well as ensuring that the curriculum is aligned for the students as they advance through the district should also be incorporated in the next year’s budget.

She also added that the board should prioritize safety and security needs above facility improvements, noting as an example that a proposed $450,000 parking lot expansion may not be necessary at this time.

Charles “Buddy” August, who kept his list short as the member who will be leaving the LBOE at the end of the month, agreed that the upcoming budget would not be the appropriate time to resume facility upgrades.

Instead, August suggested that the board consider funding additional supports for social-emotional learning and activities (SEL) for students, staff and families in place of adding new academic programming in the coming year.

He also said a goal of his would be to fund a celebration for each grade level when the children are able to return to school in person in order to reacquaint them with their teachers and peers and to mark the occasion once the pandemic ceases to interrupt daily activities.

Seth Cohen, the newest LBOE member, said he hopes to see a budget draft that will still enable the board to pivot throughout the year in order to meet the needs of both in-person and remote learning settings. He added that the state of the current economy should also be taken into account so that the district can continue to meet the expectations of the Livingston community.

Specific goals for Cohen included budgeting for the strategic planning process, investing in staffing for SEL, providing for professional development to support district goals, maintaining class sizes and continuing to invest in technology for the district. Similar to his colleagues, Cohen also stated that little-to-no capital-improvement investments should be considered in the coming year over maintenance and safety needs.

Messer said she seeks to effectively plan for the COVID-19 learning losses by assessing the level of each student in the spring in order to help the district prepare for curriculum changes that may be necessary to account for skill deficits.

She also believes that budget considerations should include college-and post-secondary supports through the guidance department as well as continuing to fund a crisis-management line and establishing a partnership with a local hospital to secure and facilitate vaccinations for LPS staff should be considered as well, she said.

Professional development in the areas of the expansion of “Math in Focus,” support for resources in SEL and funding of district goals—including diversity, equity and inclusion in the school district—were also among Messer’s priorities to be incorporated into the next LPS budget.

Although he described these goals as “ambitious,” Robinson assured the administration that their wishes have all been heard and that he is willing to face the challenge of meeting them all in the coming months.

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