SPARTA, NJ – In an unusual meeting on Monday the Sparta Board of Education approved the preliminary budget to be submitted to the New Jersey Department of Education.  Extra tables were added for board members to be separated. The public was excluded, except for press, though people were able to conference in and ask questions during public comment. 

The total budget is projected to be $66,289,713 for 2021-2022.  The tax levy is projected to be $59,863,472, representing a 2.67% levy increase.

“If this budget is not fixed by April 29, I will be voting against it,” board president Kim Bragg said in a statement about the budget.  “I came here tonight fully expecting to vote against the preliminary budget.  If it were not for the crisis caused by the coronavirus I would be voting no tonight.  For me, there is not enough in this budget regarding curriculum.  Per Dr. Rossi, this is a facilities-heavy budget.  There are no new curricular endeavors. 

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“Ultimately, this preliminary budget vote notifies the County Superintendent that the BOE intends to go to 2% cap and plans on using $388,000 in banked cap.  The rest of the details of the budget can be changed when we vote on the final budget on April 29.”

A robust discussion of some itemized expenditures was a departure from budget meetings in the past few years. 

Board member Kurt Morris had concerns about the three large capital projects listed in the budget:

  • $282,000 – staff bathroom renovations at Alpine Elementary School
  • $200,000 – playground renovations and new equipment at Mohawk Avenue School        
  • $215,000 – baseball and softball field dugouts at Sparta High School

Superintendent Michael Rossi introduced the budget.  He said, “The initial goal is to maintain all programs and services we deem necessary,” to provide education.  “We look across the campuses to identify components of infrastructure” that need to be improved.

Business Administrator Pam Hinman explained the bathroom at Alpine will be four stalls with a handicapped stall.  The number of sinks were not discussed.  The cost is an estimate by the architect.  The project calls for the gymnasium storage closet to be converted to a bathroom and the current Women’s room to be converted to a storage closet.

Morris pressed the issue.  “You can build a house for $280,000.”

“Not in Sparta,” Hinman said.

Morris said he had trouble spending $200,000 for a playground that is only used 30 minutes a day for 10 months.  According to Rossi, Hinman and board member Niamh Grano, the project will include new playground equipment, improved drainage and a paved surface for a basketball court.

Grano said the cost also includes the landscaping and mulch.  She said it will also be used by the community when school is not in session.

Turning to the dugout, Morris said, “Can’t we do a bench and a fence.”

Rossi said they had looked at other options including shipping containers.  "You can't just go out and do hodgepodge because the laws of how you can do work for public entities are very strict...You would have to pay prevailing wage," even if someone was willing to donate the dugouts. 

Board member Joanne Hoover said "all of the other high schools have them" and the baseball and softball teams “deserve it.” She said the other spring sports teams are able to use the new turf field. Rossi said someone had offered to donate a new baseball scoreboard.

This year’s budget presentation consisted of nine slides, more than one slide as it was last year.

Curriculum

Curriculum Director Patrick McQueeney said he was presenting “an extensive amount in our curricular programs,” though several of the items in his presentation were facility related including fencing, a bus, vape detectors and security cameras.

McQueeney announced district wide initiatives including purchasing science textbooks for all grades to reflect the Next Generation Science Standards for $170,000 and $5,700 online supplemental program for world language students grades six through 12.

The budget has $57,500 for professional development for teachers in all grades for “Differentiated Instruction” in English and mathematics.

McQueeney confirmed the $25,000 professional development for differentiated instruction in the high school was for teachers to "be able to handle the students with varying ability," in AP classes; to be comfortable with open enrollment, called “Open Access and Equity,” in the presentation.  He said the initiative for the 2021-2022 school year would allow "students to go into their level of instruction that they choose, not based on prerequisites. But if students are willing to challenge themselves they have the ability to do so." The professional development was to "support teachers be able to handle the students with varying ability."

The elementary schools are slated to spend $10,000 for English Language Arts or "ELA Increased Access to Text.”  According to McQueney this is a combination of a “packaged resource” and miscellaneous books to support "developing readers" and give third through fifth grade students additional books for self-guided reading as well as book clubs with their peers.

  • Alpine has $8,000 budgeted for library books and $5,500 for Waterford reading intervention program to support phonics in first grade.  McQueeney said the program is being piloted this year and they want to open it to all first grade students next year.
  • Mohawk Avenue, Helen Morgan and the middle school are all budgeted for instructional intervention resources.  McQueeney said this is to help “students who are not meeting grade level benchmarks.”
  • Helen Morgan has a “1 Book 1 School” initiative for $5,000.
  • Middle school has $6,000 budgeted for EduGuide “Social Emotional Learning” activities and coaching platform, as well as $5,000 for new elective resources and support. 
  • High school is adding gymnastics for girls and volleyball for boys for $23,896.70.

McQueeney said the middle school scheduled would be changing next year to allow for more electives.  The electives, identified by the staff would include “coding and other electives,” for all students.

Personnel

  • District wide - $65,630 full time occupational therapist, $65,630 clinician for West Mountain Academy, $50,000 increased Board Certified Behavioral Analysis services, $24,000 expansion of the ALIGN program, $20,000 general education student support services specialist,
  • Alpine – $101,146 six kindergarten classroom aides, $7,500 professional development for differentiated instruction
  • Mohawk Avenue - $6,500 professional development for differentiated instruction
  • Helen Morgan - $32,185 special education teacher- moving from part-time to full time, $64,370 instructional interventionist, $6,500 professional development for differentiated instruction.
  • Middle School - $60,380 health teacher, $7,500 professional development for differentiated instruction.
  • High School - $65,630 full time nurse, $25,000 differentiated professional development to support open enrollment for AP

McQueeney said the additional full-time nurse is not only to meet the needs identified by principal Ronnie Spring but would also be available to “float among the schools in the district in the event we don’t have coverage.”

The kindergarten aides were also discussed.  Board members alternately said the finance committee had made different decisions about the addition of the aides. The six aides, added to the four already in place, mean there will be one aid for each of the 10 sections of kindergarten, each with approximately 19 students. Another option discussed was to add another section of kindergarten but Rossi said there is not room for that. 

Facilities

Throughout the district flooring replacement is budgeted for $172,000, “in an ongoing effort to pull up all carpet to make it more hygienic,” Rossi said.  At Mohawk Avenue School, the school offices and board of education offices will get new flooring. 

  • District wide - $45,000 utility truck, $100,000 for a 54 passenger bus, $55,000 security cameras, $6,000 turf field deep cleaning machine.  
  • Alpine- $282,000 Staff bathroom, $77,510 public address replacement, $240,000 HVAC replacement, $50,000 parking lot extension and paving, $51,800 architectural services $4,200 BrightLink Projectors,
  • Mohawk Avenue -$200,000 playground renovations and equipment $3,612 miscellaneous furniture
  • Helen Morgan -$504,000 HVAC replacement,$77,510 public address replacement, $51,800 architectural services, $30,000 LED installations, $10,000 fencing around band annex, $5,930 copier,
  • Middle School- $5,000 classroom amplification system, $6,000 vape detectors
  • High School - $215,000 dugouts, $75,000 annex gym bleachers, floor and wall pads, $60,000 MacBooks and carts, $26,000 musical instruments replace and repair, $79,600 HP desktop printers, $17,325 architectural services for orchestra pit, $15,000 vape detectors

McQueeney said the MacBooks and carts were to support expanded arts programming at the high school.  The HVAC projects for Alpine and Helen Morgan are to replace existing systems, not add air conditioning, according to the board members' discussion.

The published slide presentation indicated the purchase of two trucks for Building and Grounds but only one was detailed, the other may have been removed in exchange for covering the cost of kindergarten aides.  A sound system for the high school auditorium is also listed but the costs are not included and it was not discussed at the meeting.

Not included in the presentation

Hinman said data about the district such as class size, student to teacher ratio and per pupil spending would be included in the presentation at the hearing in April. Salaries and benefits were not included in the presentation.  She did not yet have a breakdown of the tax impact per average home in Sparta. The presentation did not include any breakdown of the percentages spent in any of the budget areas.

Her presentation outlined the proposed expenditures by school:

  • Alpine- Capital/Maintenance $701,310 and new expenditures $131,346 total $832,656
  • Mohawk Avenue – Capital/Maintenance $270,000 and new expenditures $13,612 total $283,612
  • Helen Morgan- Capital/Maintenance $695,310 and new expenditures $127,985 total $823,295
  • Middle School – Capital/Maintenance $70,000 and new expenditures $90,880 total $160,880
  • High School – Capital/Maintenance $307,325 and new expenditures $295,317 total $602,642

The district will be using banked cap to get to a tax levy increase of 2.67% or $59,863,472.  Other revenue in Hinman’s presentation included $30,000 for tuition and $101,000 from “other local sources.”

The state aid announced last month after the governor’s address will be decreased from the amount received last year.  This year Sparta school district will receive $6,031,068, a 1.69% decrease from 2019-2020.  Special Education Medicaid Initiative or SEMI is projected to be $28,422, also set to decrease by 18.9%. 

Extraordinary Aid is projected to be $300,000. Extraordinary aid is paid to districts to help cover the costs of classified students who have expenses more that a set threshold.  In 2018-2019 the threshold was $40,000.

The total budget is projected to be $66,289,713 for 2021-2022.

Due to COVID-19 concerns, the meeting had been closed to the public.  Members of the community were invited to call into the meeting through Google Hangout. 

The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, April 29.  This will include the Budget Hearing.

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