MADISON, NJ – The Madison Board of Education presented a preliminary high-level look at the 2011-2012 operating budget Tuesday night noting the critical shortfalls expected for the next school year.
The board did not offer specific cuts. Like many districts in the communities that The Alternative Press covers, Madison expects benefits and staff salaries to make up the greatest portion of the budget. The benefits number would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars higher had the board not negotiated its way out of the former Oxford health plan and into the state health plan.
“We’ve been forced to move from an expense-based budget to a revenue-driven budget,” said board administrator Gary Lane, who presented the high level view of the budget.
“Years ago you were able to make a list of the things you wanted to do to grow your school,” Lane said. “Each year you’d have another list and say how can I continue this progress. Now we have to keep a list of cuts. If we are not successful at the polls, then it’s the mayor and town council that will determine the new tax levy.”
Lane focused his comments on what new monies would be available in the next year’s budget and how little it will cover, to reveal the variance the board is working with. “That is the essential question,” he said.
Revenues, of course, are limited by the state imposed two percent cap on taxes. Since districts typically receive roughly 60 percent of their revenue from property taxes, all boards in The Alternative Press communities are grappling with these budget shortfall issues.
In Madison’s case, under the fixed two percent cap, the district is looking at only $637,000 from property taxes. Missing in next year’s budget will be $487,000 in excess revenue that was available this budget year. Tuition is expected to be $18,657. In what Lane called the district’s “miscellaneous” bucket, $270,000 was budgeted with $250,000 actual. In addition, this year’s budget featured miscellaneous revenue estimated at $180,000 and that has now been reduced by $90,000.
Total “new” money coming into the district is estimated at $78,000. Coming as no surprise, expenses far outstrip new money.
Selected expenses that are not budgeted for next year include missing monies from the American Recovery and Investment Act (AARA). “We used a chunk of the money on staff this budget year,” Lane said, and the loss of “$52,000 in federal job monies for staff." Without those revenues Lane said the district has “$366,000 in live bodies that we have no money for next year.”
Benefits costs are estimated at $171,000 and staff salaries wind up at for $540,000 for all education-related employees. The district expects state mandated special needs costs of $240,000. 
All of these anticipated costs add up to $1,317,000 in expenses that the district will struggle with in the coming budget year. Fixed costs minus the $78,948 in new money becomes a $1,238,052 budget variance from the current budget year.
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” Lane said. “We are delivering the message from Trenton and doing the best we can with what we have.  We will map out the budget for the public by getting out to the PTOs and having public forums.”
Board President Lisa Ellis said the board has added an additional meeting on March 1 to facilitate budget discussions. The deadline for the budget submission to the state is March 3.
Administrator Gary Lane Receives Tenure
Board President Lisa Ellis read a statement announcing that the board had granted administrator Gary Lane early tenure.
“Mr. Lane, who has already taken a pay cut to join the Madison school district, should not have to live with the uncertainty of what the state may or may not do in coming months,” Ellis said. “The board offered him what it believed to be a fair level of compensation for the job and we strongly believe that his is worth the salary that we pay him.”
The public, however, took exception to the tenure grant, in some cases based on their opinion on a misinterpretation of the status of tenure and what it is able to protect.
“I’d like to address the Gary Lane issue,” said Becky Kidd, who is a PTO president at King’s Road school. “Approving tenure for someone who has been here for seven months and has not even passed a budget yet. I think it’s going to make it harder to sell the budget. None of the other teachers are getting to keep their salaries.”
“I have to reiterate what Ms. Kidd said,” said Diane Jenkins. “There is no way I can get people in my neighborhood to pass a budget after this.”
Board members did their best to clarify.
“There is this whole ideal that’s been pushed forward by Trenton about tenure,” said board member Kevin Blair. “Everyone has been told that tenure is a golden ticket. If for some reason he was not doing his job we could document that and pursue it. Everyone has this perception that tenure is job protection for life. It’s a fallacy. If you have someone who is not doing his or her job you can get rid of a tenured staff member.”