SUMMIT, NJ—Superintendent of Schools June Chang and Louis Pepe, who is assistant superintendent for business of the Summit school district, on Tuesday gave a rundown on the tentative 2015-16 school year budget to the city’s Board of School Estimate.
Because the Hilltop City has a Type I school district, the school estimate board has the final say on local approval of the school budget.
The board of school estimate ,which reviews the proposed spending plan -- this year amounting to $67,167,546 -- consists of Mayor Ellen Dickson, common council members Michael McTernan and Sandra Lizza, school board president Celia Colbert, and board vice president Katherine Kalin.
This body will meet again on March 30, at 7 p.m. in the council chambers of city hall to vote on the budget.
In introducing the budget, Chang, who has been the chief administrative officer of Summit’s schools for about two weeks, reiterated the goals of the budgetary process, including maintaining the district’s top-notch academic program, ensuring equity among all the city’s schools, doing both zero-based budgeting based on sound budgeting principles in each school unit, and maintaining strategies for meeting the district’s focus on world class education against the state-imposed two percent “cap” on tax increases.
The superintendent said the district is fully committed to continuing implementation of its STEAM (science, technology, engineering, architecture and mathematics) program through development of the best educational tools and use of these tools to impact instruction.
He added, “We want our students to be competitive not only with students in our area, our state, and across the country, bus also globally, teaching them how STEAM is applied in other countries. The Internet, after all, now connects us all.”
He also said today’s challenges for students, as they prepare for colleges and careers, is to learn how to solve problems that may not exist now but probably will exist in the future.
Technology purchases in line with these goals, the superintendent said, include trading traditional computer laboratories for Chromebooks in the district’s 1:1 initiative. This also includes more efficiency for the district, because every computer, worth about $600, is being replaced by a Chromebook, worth about $300.
Also included is the iPad initiative in the Lawton C. Johnson Middle School.
All of these initiatives, according to the superintendent, also will aim to give more students greater opportunities for the future, and allow wider access to advanced placement courses to give them a step-up for college.
He noted, that in a historical perspective, student enrollment stood at 3,170 in 2001, and gradually increased to 4,090 before leveling off at 4,044 in 2014.
A summary of staffing costs based on forecasted enrollment need showed a decrease of $477,678 for the elementary schools, and increases of $18,878 for the middle school and $544,278 for Summit High School, resulting in a total of $85,478 for the district.
Projected staffing, with forecasted enrollments going from 3,804 in fiscal year 2009 to 4,178 in fiscal year 2014, rose from about 555 to about 605 staff members.
Pepe noted that some of the projected expenditures for staffing included $64,000 at the high school for additional lunch aides to handle the combined lunch periods under block scheduling that is due to begin next year at the high school.
The school business administrator noted that property taxes would rise, under the proposed budget, by 1.797 percent from the 2014-15 school year to the 2015-16 school year. However, the increase from calendar year 2014 to calendar year 2015 will amount to about 1.029 percent.
He added the 2015 tax impact would be an increase of about $130 per year for 2015 on the average city home, assessed at $410,000.
A major driver in cost increases, Pepe pointed out, has been the increase in the tab for employee health benefits. In 2001, he noted, health benefits accounted for 10.3 percent of the total budget, in fiscal year 2008 they accounted for 11.1 percent, and for fiscal year 2016 they will account for 12.8 percent.
With state-mandated employee contributions, however, he noted, costs to the district have risen from $100,000 when the contributions first began in 2010 to a projected $2.4 million in fiscal year 2016. However, the total cost in benefits will have risen by that time to $8.7 million.
Pepe pointed out though that the gradual increases in employee contributions for their healthcare plans were expected to level off next year. The statutory increases in employee contributions will give way to contribution levels subject to collective bargaining.
McTernan questioned whether the district was prepared to deal with the projected heavy increases in the costs of employee pensions and healthcare benefits over the next several years.
The business administrator said the district was fully cognizant of the expected increases.
On the health benefits front, for example, he noted the Affordable Care Act has caused, and will cause, Summit public schools to provide benefits to people for whom it thought it would not have to provide benefits.
However, he noted the district sponsors an employee health fair, as well as employee wellness and employee assistance programs, in an attempt to keep its claim numbers down. It also tries to deal with illness as soon as possible to prevent it escalating into more serious conditions.
Additionally, the district’s broker is urged to aggressively track the market in setting rates and, in order to keep the perspective of its broker “fresh,” Pepe said, the district this year is again soliciting requests for proposals to see if it can come up with a more effective deal than that which it has currently.
Responding to Lizza, Pepe said he did not have an exact number of district employees opting out of the Summit plan for spouse’s health coverage, but there has been a tendency for employees to opt into other plans where the contributions are less expensive.
McTernan, reiterating a request made by the Board of School Estimate last year, asked Pepe what the district was doing to fully cost the expenses of its tuition-based, Full-Day kindergarten rather than providing only “marginal costs.”
The business administrator replied that, in arriving at this coming year’s higher $7,000 tuition level, it took its cost forecasts, adjusted for the costs it already knew, divided those costs over two classes, and looked at the results of the lottery selecting those children chosen for the program.
The district expenditure for the coming year was estimated at about $50,000, he said, and “fully-loaded” costs of such items as nursing care and heating attributable to the classes in Wilson and Jefferson schools were taken into account to the greatest extent possible. He said the full impact of the costs would not be known until later in the school year depending on the staffing actually required for the classes at that time.
McTernan wanted to know if the costs of the tentative settlement with the Summit Education Association had been figured into the budget.
The business administrator said the costs of the settlement had been figured into the budget, but asked board president Celia Colbert, who chaired the board negotiating committee, to report on the status of the agreement.
Colbert said the SEA’s representatives were formulating salary guides based on the settlement while the district’s staff was working on the documentation. She said a ratification vote was expected shortly by the teachers’ union, and this would be followed by a vote by the school body on ratification.
Pepe also said the settlement would not preclude the district from doing the best job it could on drawing up the next school budget.
Responding to a question from Dickson about the use of demographers to project future school enrollments, the administrator noted that former superintendent of schools Nathan Parker had taken figures arrived at by a demographer used by his predecessor and then had two more projections made by different demographers. He said he believed Chang would recommend hiring of different demographers if he felt it was warranted.
Replying to a question from McTernan about the cost of PARCC testing, Pepe said because Summit had already been using some of the technology required for PARCC testing for other programs in its schools there was no direct impact of the testing on the budget.
He also said possible use of PARCC testing results for teacher evaluations would be easier to implement for Summit because the district had used the Kim Marshall teacher evaluation system prior to many other districts in the state.
Chang added that, when he joined the district, district technology director Douglas Orr and assistant superintendent Julie Glazer assured him the district had the hardware and bandwidth to successfully implement the required testing.
He also said that the technology used for PARCC testing would help the district further advance its STEAM program in the future.
On another major issue -- the call for removal of voting districts from city schools -- the mayor asked if the district could possibly budget to block off the gymnasium in the middle school to make access less easy for voters.
Pepe said although nothing specifically had been budgeted for this purpose it was possible the district could look at budgeting for gates next year.
Dickson also suggested the new first aid squad building and the renovated recreation center could possibly be voting sites in the future.
In response to a question from Lizza about the increase of cost per pupil in Summit, Pepe said the major drivers of per pupil cost increases were technology expenditures, and increases in healthcare benefit costs.
Following the completion of several major renovation projects in the schools this year, the business administrator told McTernan, no major projects were anticipated next year.
He said projects could include about $280,000 for replacement of the high school roof, and projects in other schools bringing the total to about $400,000.