MADISON, NJ – Superintendent of Schools Michael Rossi and Business Administrator Gary Lane described aspects of the 2015-16 district budget and fielded questions from the public at an informal meeting on Monday.
Rossi started off with the "good things" that been accomplished or are in progress this year. Among them; TV Studio improvements, high school auditorium lighting and rigging, a strategic planning process, introduction of one-to-one Chromebooks for grades 4-12, infrastructure initiatives, new grass on the soccer field and upgrade to the baseball field at the high school.
“The Strategic Planning Process will guide and inform decision making for the next five years,” Rossi said. “We’re working with other school districts on Stem initiatives, both long and short term.” He also described Common Core curriculum as the backbone of the learning process, along with NJ Achieve and a new methodology referred to as Student Growth Objectives.
New courses have been introduced, including Singapore Math and History Alive. The district has preserved all programs, enhanced performing arts offerings and supported athletic and extracurricular activities. New security measures include swipe cards and the installation of 90 security cameras.
Lane focused on the myriad budget details, which will be presented again at the regular Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, April 28. His presentation Monday evening will also be on the district’s website.
“The challenge is increasing costs,” he said, “with little or no increase in state aid. It becomes more difficult every year to maintain class size, the courses we want to offer and the upkeep of our infrastructure.” At one time, the budget was program driven but now, he said, it is revenue driven because of the 2% CAP imposed by the state. Lane explained that the school budget operates on a fiscal year, July 1st to June 30th, while the borough operates on a calendar year, Jan. 1st to Dec. 31st. He anticipates an increase in the school portion of property taxes to be 3.9%.
One resident said the emphasis should be on “what we can do, not on what we can’t. You’re taking the position of victims, blaming the state instead of coming up with revenue producing ideas.” It appeared, he said, that taxes would go up again next year “unless there’s major surgery.” He said the Strategic Planning Process might be the key to more creative ideas and areas of cost cutting.
Another person said the emphasis should be on technology. Board of Education member Debra Coen said that online textbooks were being considered, but those issues need to be carefully thought out and not just following a trend.
Questions came up about special education and transportation costs. Rossi said there is a savings if students are kept in the Madison system, but that is offset by the need for teachers and aides. The definition of special education is broad, Rossi said, and is defined by accommodations needed, such as speech therapy or physical therapy. The cost can average $65,000 to $75,000 for a special education student, not including transportation. Outplacement costs can vary tremendously, he said. Lane said if a student chooses to attend a non-public school, the district must still pay for transportation and textbooks for that student.
There were also questions about health benefits. Lane said those are 24% of payroll costs. The district takes part in the state health benefit plan, he said. Rossi noted the net contributions by employees have reduced the cost to the district by $800,000. Those changes are being phased in.
Both Rossi and Lane invited further engagement in the budget process, especially looking ahead to 2016-2017. “We need smart people to come to our aid. But finances have to be part of every decision,” Lane said.