LIVINGSTON, NJ — Community members had an opportunity to provide input on the Livingston Public Schools preliminary budget during a live webinar on Tuesday after the Livingston Board of Education (LBOE) recently voted 3-2 to approve the budget with a $199 tax increase to the average home, assessed at approximately $700,000.
The preliminary budget totals $128,944,02 for 2020-2021, which includes a debt service of $8,171,250. The district is also expecting a total of $5,579,139 in state aid, although the state has yet to determine whether this figure will change as a result of the pandemic.
Understanding that the changes can be made to the budget until April 27, LBOE President Ronnie Konner said the purpose of hosting this live public forum was to “give the administration time to assess and recommend changes” before then.
“The board recognizes changes in circumstances due to COVID-19 and agreed to adopt the budget as originally proposed in March,” said Konner. “The administration will present recommendations, and it will be up to the board to decide how to balance our responsibility for providing an education to our children and also being fiscally responsible to the members of our community.”
In addition to discussing the projected tax increase, Konner said the board is also going to loo at the many “unknown, unanticipated and potential added costs” that the district “did not even envision in March.”
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Matthew Block agreed that it was crucial for the district to “begin with recognizing unprecedented and challenging times” when addressing the budget.
With input from the administration, board of education and the public, Block said the focus has been to “expand learning opportunities and prepare students for the future.”
“Now we need to balance the financial hardships that so many in the community are suffering from with a determination to preserve the educational services that have defined our schools, shaped children’s lives and are essential to Livingston’s identity,” he said.
Addressing the state’s mandated timeline for adopting school budgets, the board noted that New Jersey school districts have not been afforded extensions. May 7 remains the deadline for districts to hold the budget hearings, and all districts must adopt budgets no later than May 14.
According to the board, a task force has been created to assess the state budget and state aid, but those findings will not be revealed until May 22. Therefore, local districts are put into a position of adopting budgets based on expected state aid that may or may not come to fruition.
While crafting the 2020-2021 budget, the LBOE said it also needs consider potential requirements and restrictions that could eventually be mandated, such as:
- Capital improvements to enhance social distancing;
- Revisions to busing requirements;
- Shifts being split to reduce the number of occupants in a building;
- Implementing limits to class sizes;
- A need to provide personal protection equipment;
- A need for increased healthcare testing and healthcare staffing; and
- Expenses on technology requirements, including hardware and software.
Block also noted that all staffing contracts are expiring and that the outcome of negotiations within the individual unions will greatly impact the budget.
“We recommend that the board approve a slightly modified budget to provide some relief and know that the status quo is no longer acceptable,” said Block. “I recommend that the board approve the budget with the majority of funds in place so we can meet whatever challenged lie ahead.
“By approving a measured budget cut for now, we can keep our district in a position to be strong in anticipation of the very likely event that we will all need to make major financial decisions in the future. There will be more answers after the May 22 report.”
In order to stay at CAP, Business Administrator Steve Robinson recommended that the board defer two projects were initially included in this year’s budget. These include a parking lot expansion at Hillside Elementary School (estimated at $450,000) and new training equipment for the athletic center at Livingston High School ($125,000).
Robinson reiterated that none of these cuts were subject to a vote during last week’s meeting and all items will be voted upon when the board adopts the final budget.
Other items being considered for this year’s budget that Robinson did not recommend cutting include playground fencing upgrades at Riker Hill, new carpeting at Riker Hill, “Project Adventure” walls at both middle schools, lights at the Heritage media center and paving and milling projects at Mt. Pleasant Middle School.
“They may not be a priority at the end of the day, and we don’t expect all projects will happen, but the monies will be budgeted for,” said Block, adding that the district intends to be prepared to move forward with those expenses in the event some of unanticipated costs due to the pandemic.
According to Robinson, school closings could result in a cost savings of approximately $800,00 to $1 million due to reduction of energy costs and less overtime than expected in addition to the minimal snow removal that was needed this season. However, Robinson stated that he would prefer to add these into the district’s reserve fund for future purposes, adding that the district also lost income from rental fees that it would have typically received.
After board member Samantha Messer suggested that the board reschedule its scheduled budget hearing from April 27 to May 7—which is the last day that the board is able to submit its budget to the state—the board unanimously agreed to do so in hopes that more information about funding and/or requirements moving forward will be available in the coming weeks.
During public comment, residents commended the board and the administration for all of their efforts during this period.
Many of those who provided comments made suggestions about how the board can make additional cost savings amid the current health crisis.
When one resident noted that cutting transportation and athletics would save the district close to $5 million, Robinson responded that eliminating sports teams would be greatly upsetting to students and parents and that both general-education and special-education transportation routes are mandated.
Fielding a suggestion from another parent who said the district should employ additional special education teachers to save on out-of-district tuitions, Assistant Superintendent Lisa Steiger stated that many in-distinct programs have recently been created and that the Livingston district has also become a receiving district, meaning that it provides special-education services to students whose sending districts provide the tuition fees.
When another resident questioned how the recently proposed senate bill would affect the district’s healthcare plan if adopted, Robinson said it is too soon to confirm any savings. He noted, however, that the Livingston district recently saw an overall increase of 8 percent for health costs, which he said was significantly lower other districts that saw “double-digit increases.”
One community member suggested that the LBOE also review the current administrative positions and determine whether two administrators are needed to cover elementary and secondary supervisory roles in the same departments.
In response to a resident who cautioned the district to apply quickly for federal grants for COVID-19-related expenditures—stating that funds are limited and that many of these grants are on a first-come, first-serve basis—Robinson assured that the district is applying for all available grants.
The next board of education meeting is scheduled for April 27 and the budget hearing will be held on May 7.