Education

Fighting Lagging State Aid, New Brunswick School Budget Would Raise Taxes

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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Residents are in line to pay more in taxes as the city’s school district attempts to preserve its educational programs and workforce amid a slowdown in state aid increases.

New Brunswick’s board of education approved its $201 million budget for the 2017-18 school year during a meeting late last week at the high school. Residents may vote on the spending plan in the April 25 school board elections.

“We’ve really had to make cuts in general administration and maintenance of schools in order to keep the core instructional programs,” Business Administrator Richard Jannarone said on March 23.

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The budget is roughly $1.5 million less than the revised ledger for the current school year. If approved, it’d go into effect in July.

But the tax levy is poised to rise from $28.9 million to $30.2 million in the upcoming school year. That figure represents the amount of money collected for schools from New Brunswick’s taxpayers.

For the owner of a home assessed at the city average of $271,000, the proposed budget represents an increase of roughly $45.33, bringing the tab to $2,405 for the year, according to district documents.

Most people would pay either less or more than that figure, depending on their property values.

Before sending the budget to the state for review, New Brunswick officials anticipated taxes to rise by $32. Jannarone said the district didn’t receive the amount of state aid it had expected in order to pay down debts.

“It is, we feel, a relatively small tax increase for the residents over the course of the year,” he said.

State aid would support roughly 72 percent of the school budget. New Brunswick makes up the rest from local taxes, federal funds and miscellaneous revenues.

In recent years, however, state officials have reined in how much money New Jersey doles out to school districts. That’s presented a challenge for communities like New Brunswick.

In the upcoming school year, for example, school administrators are looking to make up $2.8 million in funding, Jannarone said. While they don’t have plans to lay off teachers, they do intend to take a second look at vacancies and new positions.

“We’re analyzing every vacancy and every new position that we require,” Jannarone said, “because we do not have the funds to be able to go out and fill every new position and vacancy that we currently have.”

If that trend continues, the district could face a $5 million budget gap in the 2018-19 school year, he said.

Jannarone said he hopes to reallocate staff responsibilities over the next couple of years so “we can accomplish our goal and not have a reduction in force.”

The lion’s share of the budget that voters will soon judge goes toward salaries and benefits, totaling $122.7 million, according to the district.

The district has made $2.2 million in cuts to school maintenance. General administration is set to drop by $62,000, or 3.5 percent from this year.

Money paid to charter schools, meanwhile, could climb by $612,000, or 12 percent. Professional development may realize a $400,000 increase, according to district documents and officials.

“We are investing in teachers,” Superintendent Aubrey John said, adding that new training should yield better outcomes for students. “Just give us a couple of years.”

New Brunswick school officials expect to serve nearly 9,580 students by this October. If that proves true, the per-pupil cost of the proposed budget would be about $16,163—a drop-off of about $700 from the current number.

The school district has taken in a wave of new students in recent years.

Six years ago, in the 2011-12 school year, New Brunswick enrolled 1,623 fewer students than now, Jannarone said. State funding during since then has climbed $4.2 million, a jump that local officials don’t believe to be adequate.

“I think that gives you a little idea of how difficult it has been to put together this ’17-18 budget,” Jannarone told an auditorium that was all but empty, “and the challenges we’ve had in being able to preserve the necessary core instructional programs with the funding that we’ve been receiving.”

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