MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education approved the 2021-2022 school year's budget on Monday night, though several members voiced concerns about passing along tax increases to residents who are hurting in the pandemic.

The board approved the budget — which includes a 2% increase — by a vote of 5-3, with members Kamal Zubieta, Johanna Wright and Elissa Malespina all voting against the plan as presented by Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor.

The total proposed expenditure for the budget is $159,683,232, about 1.6% more — or $2.54 million — than the current school year's revised budget.

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Increases include 5.5% more for salaries and contract services, which make the largest portion of the budget at 54%. Transportation spending is also higher, at $8.4 million, a nearly 23% jump. At a recent board meeting, the district decided to extend courtesy busing for students for one more year. Not offering that busing would have put more of an onus on students to get to school on their own.

Board discussion centered around planned spending — paid for by grants — to address what the district called academic and social/emotional recovery for students given the upheaval of the last two school years. Board member Shannon Cuttle said the budget was a “moral document” of the district that will guide spending.

But Zubieta said the budget was also a fiscal document and questioned why the board was not talking about the effect of the resulting 3.2% tax increase on families, including those who have lost jobs or are otherwise hurting financially. Local taxes are expected to fund a decreasing percentage of the SOMSD school budget.

Zubieta pointed out the townships were also planning their own tax increases and said the impact on families must be taken into account, even if the spending is all for a good cause.

“If we purport to care about those families who are less financially stable right now, then why aren’t we worried about the money in their pockets?” she asked.

Taylor responded that 2% is the maximum that a district can increase spending each year, and doing so each year prevents further, harsher cuts in the future.

“If we don’t go to that 2% number it’s going to catch up to us in a few years,” he said. “We have to keep our floor strong so we don’t have massive cuts like some districts have had in NJ.”

Taylor presented the budget in terms of district priorities, starting with helping students recovery from lack of in-person instruction this year. These plans include increased summer instructional opportunities, year-long virtual tutoring and additional resources for high school students who need help in biology, physics, algebra and geometry.

Wright, who voted against the budget, questioned spending on what she called “experimental” programs, when other more tangible spending is needed, such as fixing Underhill Field.

Malespina, who also voted against the plan, said she was disappointed that the district did not provide more data to support these spending proposals, especially for new types of programming. The budget does not lock in spending for each item or program, she said, but she was concerned that some of these costly proposals were included and it’s not clear if they are needed.

“We have not figured out if this is really what our students need and their data hasn’t been shown to us to prove that,” she said.

Board president Thair Joshua said he was glad the state is providing additional aid and the district is in a position where it does not have to cut jobs.

Member Courtney Winkfield said she appreciated the inclusion of social and emotional learning support for students and called for help for teachers and other adults employed by the district as well.

“They’ve also experienced a lot of trauma. Just thinking about post-approval of this budget, how can we think about funds for healing for adults in the district?” she asked.



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