SPARTA, NJ – The board of education is still wrangling with the school budget. A few big ticket capital projects and a personnel item have been modified or eliminated in the weeks since the March board meeting.
The changes included:
- Eliminating the staff bathroom at Alpine Elementary School - $280,000
- Reducing the cost of the high school baseball and softball dugouts to $176,000
- Reducing the expenditure for the Mohawk Avenue School playground to $149,000
- Eliminating four kindergarten aids cutting the cost by approximately $67,430
- Changing the bus purchase to a lease- Initially budgeted for $100,000. New cost was not discussed
- The board also discussed adding 20 electrostatic sprayers though no price tag was given. The district currently has one sprayer to disinfect all five buildings and 14 buses. Business Administrator Pam Hinman said she had ordered four more but did not know when they would be available.
Most of the discussion was focused on the playground at Mohawk Avenue School. The scope of the project could include playground equipment, mulch, landscaping, regrading to address drainage issues, a blacktop and basketball hoops and fencing.
As passed, the revised budget eliminated $50,000 from the playground project. Board member Kurt Morris and board president Kim Bragg said they did not support the additional blacktop and basketball hoop because they said the correct process was not followed and they did not have the supporting documentation for the additional elements of the project.
“As the finance chair, in good faith I don’t feel comfortable recommending anything to the full board until I see a quote,” Bragg said.
Rossi was working with a “playground committee” of parents. In the meeting on Monday and the March meeting he referenced the unofficial committee. “We worked around number of $100,00 for the actual playground equipment,” to create an appropriate outdoor play space at the third grade building.
In explaining how the scope of the project had expanded he said, “as the conversations unfolded that initiative grew to include the basketball hoop” for $7,000. “Paving is something we do all the time… often in coordination with the township so that number is something that we’re comfortable with,” referring to the estimated cost.
“If there’s any project to be done the drainage has to be included,” Rossi said. He also pointed to the aftercare program that takes place at Mohawk Avenue School as a reason to support the project.
Morris said using the aftercare as rationale for the playground “is not a good point to make; we can have aftercare at any school. We tell them where to go, they don’t tell us.”
Rossi said he did not know where the quote of $149,000 came from. Bragg said it was a quote that parent committee member Lisa Gardner had sent to the administration and Hinman forwarded to Bragg and Bragg share it with the board.
Parent Lisa Gardner said, after the meeting, the quote did not come from the parents. She said she "assumed the quote came from the playground representative Ben Shaffer." She said Hinman, Rossi, Principal Laura Trent and Tappen were all copied on the quote.
Parent Lauren Collier said in an interview after the meeting, the committee had been working with Rossi and had come up with a plan for playground equipment that was within the $100,000. This included the playground, basketball hoops for the blacktop area, benches, installation, footers and boarders.
She said Rossi told the parent group the other items, fencing, grading and paving would be handled through the buildings and grounds department and budget, as well as through shared services with the township. Collier said Rossi was going to get the pricing for those items from Chris Tappen, the district Buildings and Grounds Supervisor.
“Wanting to be prudent is fair,” Rossi said. “We have $181,000 yet to allocate as money from the Alyssa’s Law Security but don’t yet have guidelines to access and are being allocated $71,000 from CARES act.”
These two sources of funding had not been addressed in the presentation of the preliminary budget at the March meeting.
Alyssa’s Law A764 provides funding for districts to implement panic alarms or alternative emergency mechanisms in public elementary and secondary school. The law also provides for reimbursement for security measures installed prior to the law’s approval.
Board member Jen Grana asked if the whole playground project could be “put on one page,” following up on Bragg’s concern about not having seen documentation of the estimates and scope of the project.
Morris was critical of the superintendent for working outside the board. “The unfortunate thing is this was never approved by the board. [The playground] was promised by someone who didn’t have the authority to make promises, filling their heads with false hope… Too many hands in it by outside people. There was no need to have numbers and estimates given by mothers.”
Collier said they were surprised and disappointed by Morris’s tone. She said there was a lot of confusion about the project among board members.
At the meeting on Monday, Morris did not say he had a problem with the project, just that “the process was done wrong –it was done backwards.”
Board member Kate Mateson disagreed with Morris. “I think the project was worked through the board.” She said she was not in favor of “changing course” after having “so much community involvement.”
“I don’t think having community involvement was wrong,” Board member Jay Vantresca said. “I’m a fan of having the blacktop.”
Bragg said it was “important to know the finance committee had never received any quote on any other portion of this project… the drainage, the blacktop, the basketball hoops” and the first time she heard about the fencing was from a parent during public comment.
Business Administrator Pam Hinman said fencing would come in through “buildings and grounds capital funds.” She said the paving and grading were priced by Tappen.
Board member Joanne Hoover said, “It’s for the kids,” explaining her changed opinion of the increased spending. She said she did not “think it was worth fighting over.”
Ventresca said he was fine with spending the additional $50,000 because it will probably include the paving and the drainage. If that’s the case I’m fine with spending the additional $50,000 “because it’s kind of just a place holder,” in the budget; that it is a “guestimate,” and that the cost cannot exceed the $200,000. “I’m comfortable with $200,000 being the placeholder.”
Kylen Anderson said, “I am very much in favor of a playground…I think $150,000 is a lot to put toward a playground.” She said she is in favor of “building the best playground possible playground we can for $150,000…I’m okay saying $150,000 is what I can stand behind.”
A few parents who were on the Google Hangout meeting, had comments. Lisa Gardner and Lauren Collier both read statements in favor of the playground.
The project checks two boxes for the district. It provides an adequate playground for the students and also fits with the district’s commitment to health and wellness, Collier said.
The preliminary budget passed as presented in March. It included a faculty bathroom for $280,000 baseball and softball dugouts at the high school for $215,000 and $200,000 for playground equipment for Mohawk Avenue School. The preliminary budget also included $101,146 for six kindergarten aids, allowing for one aid in each classroom.
Superintendent Michael Rossi said the cost of the dugout could be reduced because the district buildings and grounds staff would pour the concrete pad.
Hinman confirmed the budget could continue to be revised until it is finally approved after the Budget Hearing at the board meeting on April 29.