LIVINGSTON, NJ — The Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) met electronically this week in order to conduct regular business and address any questions the community had during the first week of remote learning.
While streaming live on the Livingston Public Schools Facebook page, the board continued its tentative budget discussion for the 2020-2021 school year after receiving an initial draft from Business Administrator Steven Robinson earlier this month. The board voted 3-2 in favor of the budget as it was originally presented.
Reductions have been made since the initial discussion, totaling $1.29 million, according to Robinson. For the average Livingston home—assessed at $700,000—the latest budget proposal would reduce the initially projected tax impact from an increase of $199 to an increase of $99.
Included in the newly proposed budget is the deferment of capital improvements and projects that total $684,000. The final budget is currently scheduled to be voted upon on April 27.
The proposed budget for 2020-2021 school year currently totals $128,944,012. Anticipated revenues total $10,781,619, leaving $118,162,404 to be raised through property taxes.
Board member Pamela Chirls inquired about the deferment of the capital projects, specifically questioning whether the strength and conditioning equipment being considered for replacement at the high school was due to safety reasons or for expansion of the program.
Robinson responded that the administration would never defer anything that was needed for safety and confirmed that some of the equipment is past its life expectancy. He noted that the board can choose to defer the replacement of the equipment until the following year if needed.
Other examples of capital projects that can be deferred included paving, carpet replacement, the purchase of flexible seating, fencing and lighting upgrades.
LBOE Vice President Samantha Messer raised concerns about potential cuts in proposed state aid due to the current economic climate and potential effects of COVID-19. Due to the unknown costs of compensatory retroactive services that will be required for classified students that may carry over to the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Messer proposed that the board consider adopting the original preliminary budget discussed on March 2 to provide a cushion and allow the board to determine the district’s specific needs over the next month.
Robinson said he is still anticipating news of the proposed state aid, which currently reflects an increase of $800,000 over last year’s figure. He noted that there is a chance the governor’s proposed budget will be altered.
Board member Charles August stated that the adoption of the preliminary budget “doesn’t mean a thing” and that it is the final budget of April 27 that is relevant. He added that the impact of $199 versus $99 to the average homeowner is “not going to make a serious difference.”
“Taxpayers would be willing to pay the extra $100,” said August, stating that the board would need to make significant cuts to the budget if the district was seriously concerned about offering relief to the taxpayers.
LBOE President Ronnie Konner stated she was “uncomfortable with putting this budget together this time and that there were many unknowns.” She suggested accepting the proposed budget cuts and to reassess the budget in 30 days when the board has a better understanding of the impact of either further cuts or increased tax impact.
Konner noted that this would also allow more opportunity for feedback from the community.
Robinson clarified that the state must receive a tentative school budget from the district to be approved by March 20, but that the scheduled meeting to adopt the final budget in April is subject to change.
After much discussion, Messer made a motion to approve the original tentative budget as presented to the board on March 2, which calls for an annual tax increase of $199 to the average homeowner. Messer, Cohen and August voted in favor of the tentative budget, while Konner and Chirls did not support the adoption.
In other district news, at the start of the meeting, Konner expressed gratitude to the community at-large on behalf of the board for its support and feedback over the last two weeks.
“It takes the combined efforts of so many,” she said. “Our superintendent, administrative team, staff, students, parents and I would like to thank the public and everyone who is a part of Livingston Public Schools for their continued engagement and partnership with us.”
Noting that there are now more than 850 million students learning remotely worldwide, according to CNN, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Matthew Block spoke highly of how well-prepared Livingston was in transitioning to this virtual model.
He also stated that other districts “followed suit” after Livingston made the early decision to close for two weeks in response to COVID-19 concerns.
“On a positive note, we have had a wonderful start to remote learning,” said Block. “Our principals are doing announcements virtually in the morning, our teachers are connecting through the Internet, and they are providing meaning assignments. I cannot thank enough our administrators, our teachers, our parents and our community for all of these supports and hard work that have gone into making this successful.”
The superintendent reminded the community about out a letter distributed earlier in the week stating this has been a “big sacrifice for all of us” and stressed that “it takes the responsibility of every family to adhere to the CDC guidelines about not gathering in large groups.”
While discussing official agenda items, the board revisited a previous topic about exploring the policy on the current board size.
The board confirmed that a subcommittee has been charged with gathering information and reporting back to the full board during a public meeting, although Konner reiterated that this is “not a priority at this time” due to current circumstances.
The board also unanimously passed the adoption of two books for the English Language Arts curriculum for the sixth grade: “Amina’s Voice” by Saalem Reads and Hema Khan and “Lost in the Sun” by Lisa Graff and Philo Mel.
Additionally, the district accepted the resignations of Mary Walmsley, a biology teacher at Livingston High School who has been in district 23 years, and elementary school teacher Christopher Ebneth, who has taught in the district for 27 years.
Also approved was the suspension of five students, including two from the middle school for violation of the technology policy and three from the high school for substance abuse.
The next board of education meeting is currently scheduled for April 13.