MIDDLETOWN, NJ: Middletown Township Public Schools district parents and other community members received an overview of the draft budget proposal presented by the Middletown Township Board of Education (MTBOE). Also presented were routine school district updates from Board members, and updates on the district’s progress in implementing its phased re-opening plan during the Feb. 17th MTBOE meeting held on Zoom.

The meeting began with a moment of silence in honor of a retired Bayshore Middle School teacher who passed away earlier this month.   The teacher, Kathy Marion, retired from teaching in 2002. 

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Then came a board vote on hiring new legal counsel, a motion that passed 5-4.

Next came the presentation of the annual school district financial audit by Matt Holman, the district’s external auditing.  In his remarks, Holman said that he and his team gave an “unmodified opinion” of the school district’s finances, which basically means that his assessment of the district’s financial outlook was positive and in full agreement with the results of the district’s internal audit.

Holman also said the district has earned a “certificate of excellence” award for the way the district was handling its finances for the 10th consecutive year, and that only a few districts in Monmouth County have earned this award.

“I must say that the district did a great job,” he said. “It was challenging to have us on time site for probably only one-quarter of the time. It was quite a challenge for us to pivot this year, but this year I think it we were successful.”

Following this was the MTBOE’s annual presentation for the tentative school district budget plan for the 2021-2022 school year by District Business Administrator Amy Doherty. 

The presentation pointed out that the school district is expected to take in about $171.7 million in revenue for the upcoming school year, about $4 million more than the district is expected to take in during the current school year.  Most of this money will come from property tax collections, known as the “tax levy,” which is projected to be about $150.5 million, with the rest coming from state aid, a small amount of federal grant money, and the use of reserve and savings funds that the district contributed to in previous school years.

For spending, the district is expected to spend about $172.6 million in the upcoming school year, about $5million more than the current school year, leaving a projected budget shortfall of slightly under $900,000; with a more precise shortfall estimate being about $876,000, Doherty said.

“We still have somewhat of a budget shortfall that we’re working on closing,” she said.

Doherty then said that the tax levy would increase by about 2 percent in the upcoming school year, while the amount of state aid being sent to the district decreasing by about $1million, Doherty said; adding that more precise figures would arrive once the Governor makes the annual state budget address.

“We’re hoping to hear something next week,” he said.

In addition, Doherty said that one of the spending line items the district is working on this year is the replacement of the “bubbles” at High Schools North and South, which are basically large tent like structures that host athletic activities and events as well as certain physical education courses and activities.

The tentative budget plan must be approved by March 17th, and a public hearing for and a vote on the final budget must take place between April 24th and May 7th.

Afterward came some progress updates on the school district’s gradual phased re-opening plan’s implementation, given by Superintendent Mary Ellen Walker.   Earlier this month, the district was able to combine the two student cohorts for Kindergarten and 1st grade as well as for the high school grades and is looking forward to combining the higher elementary school grades in the coming weeks, as well as adding an extra in-person day to the Middle School student schedule starting this upcoming Monday.

Walker said that the reason behind the Middle School student cohorts not being fully combined was that there was a capacity limit on the volume of in-person students permitted in a school building at a given day, which would have been exceeded if all such students who wanted to be in person full-time were allowed to do so.

“We’re hoping that this is going to work out well,” she said.

Next came the committee updates, starting with Administrator David Siwiak for technology, followed by Board member Deborah Wright for student services, Board member Jacqueline Tobacco for policy, Board member and Vice President Frank Capone for facilities, etc.

For student services, Wright said that an outside consultant would soon be hired to look into how to reduce the risk of disproportionate suspensions of minority special ed students, like the state alleged there was in recent years.

Then, District Charlene O’Hagan announced that the district would be participating in numerous job fairs for upcoming teachers who are due soon for graduation in March and April, and that the district is especially looking for sign-language teachers and world language teachers.

“So get the word out, and the applications rolling in,” said Board President Joanne Minnues. “The more (applications come in), the better for Middletown Township.   “It’s big shoes to fill.  Middletown hires so many of our former students and we’re proud to do that”

Although the rate of COVID-19 transmission is down 80% compared to the height of the pandemic last spring, Stacey Jones, a Middletown resident, was deeply worried about possible increased risk of school-based COVID-19 outbreaks as a result of implementing a full-time in-person schedule. During the public portion she expressed her concern.