MIDDLETOWN, NJ - Middletown Township’s Board of Education summarized and then approved the school district’s budget for the 2019-2020 cycle that begins on July 1st; as well as heard presentations on Strategic Planning approaches for the 2020-2025 planning cycle from two consulting firms, during its May 1st public hearing, which took place at Middletown High School North’s auditorium. 

The meeting, which was moved from the school’s Media Center where it’s normally held to the auditorium because of a student art display at the Media Center, began with Amy Gallagher’s final summary of the budget. 

The upcoming budget will be for just under $163.7 million, up from roughly about $162.1 million in the current budget, for a total of about $1.5 million, or just under one percent, in increased spending.
The budget funds are dedicated toward student instruction-related costs (about $58 million), special education and related services (about $25 million), employee benefits about ($25 million), transportation (about $10.8 million), IT costs (about $11.1 million), facility maintenance and operations ($14.9 million), costs of out-of-district placement, home instruction, and other related services for students who need them (about $14 million) professional staff development (about $1.3 million) debt service (about $1 million), and extra-curricular activities (about $2.5 million)
Funding for the upcoming budget is expected to come mostly from financial aid provided by the state of New Jersey (about $16.61 million) and property taxes revenues (about $143.6 million), with the rest coming from other sources.  For comparison, property tax revenues for the current budget year are expected to be about $140.8 million, and financial aid from the state is projected to be about $17.16 million dollars – for a total of about a 2 percent increase in property tax revenue from this year to next, and a 3.22 percent decrease in state aid in the same period.

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Amy Gallagher, the District’s Business Administrator who presented the budget, said the state will decrease the amount of financial aid it gives annually to the district by about $5 to 6 million annually over the next five years because of adjustments in how state aid is calculated, and because of declining student enrollment over the past several years.
“The state is looking at Middletown as receiving too much state aid, and is phasing that out,” Gallagher said.
After the budget portion came the strategic planning presentations from two consulting firms on how they approach strategic planning, given that the district is on the last year of the current (2015-2020) planning cycle, and is about to start the next one.

David Hespe, a consultant with the Princeton Public Affairs consulting firm, said he likes to approach strategic planning for school districts by focusing on the end goals they have rather than just following a technical process.
“I see strategic planning not as a process,” Hespe said. “(Rather), it’s about outcome.”
Hespe also said that strategic planning can sometimes be challenging because it involves trying to align what school districts currently wish to do with what they would like to see happen several years into the future. 
“You’re not planning for today, you’re planning for a future far off,” he said. “How you make certain current decisions, and how do those decisions affect the future, I think that is a good reflection.”

In addition, Hespe said a crucial component of a successful strategic plan is an effective, creative, and engaging public outreach program - and also to make sure the public feels included in shaping the strategic plan. 
 “You want to bring along people who normally would not come to these events,” he said. “We’ll go to some games, back to school nights, we’ll hand out cards, whatever we have to do. You have to be really good at outreach. If you can say ‘I can see my self in that plan’, you hit a home-run.”
Afterward, Dale Caldwell, a consultant for Government Strategy Group, began to explain his approach to strategic planning. 
He was first introduced by the firm’s CEO Kenneth Roberts, who said Caldwell has done strategic plans for various school districts throughout New Jersey, including one recently in Montclair.  Roberts also said Caldwell has been a Board of Education member and president in New Brunswick for many years; and was even once named Board member of the year. 
“He’s not only done strategic planning, he’s also been a consumer,” he said. “He’s very uniquely qualified.”
Caldwell then began his presentation by saying that any strategic planning process needs to follow the right steps in order to be successful. 
“If you don’t start off on the right foot, the strategic planning process is not going to be as good as you want it to be,” he said. 

Caldwell also said a good strategic planning process needs to have creative thinking and innovative brainstorming on how to work with existing resources to accomplish a school district’s goals. 
“We often say we don’t have enough money, (or) we have too many students,” Caldwell said. “It’s often deeper than that. We often over-simplify that.”
In addition, Caldwell said strategic planning’s most important aspect is not becoming complacent once a plan is put in place, but instead to monitor and adjust it if necessary.
“It has to be malleable,” he said. 

Lastly, Caldwell said that one of the keys of successful strategic planning is community involvement. 
“If the community feels like they’re being heard, even if they don’t agree with everything in the strategic plan, that’s success,” he said. “You have to have people feel like they have some input.  We have people with real issues – we want to hear them.”