Education

Summit Board of School Estimate Unanimously Adopts $69 Million School Budget; Improved Health Plan Renewal Numbers Bring Tax Bite Down to $102 on Average Home

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The Summit Board of School Estimate, from left, Richard Hanley, David Dietze, Nora Radest, Robert Rubino, and Steve Bowman, Credits: Summit Public Schools Photo Services
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SUMMIT, NJ—The Summit Board of School Estimate has given its approval to a 2017-18 education spending plan of $69,050,120, which will result in the tax impact -- in support of City schools -- to the average Summit home dropping from the originally-projected estimate of $129 to a final figure of about $102.

Assistant Superintendent of Schools for Business Louis Pepe announced the decreased figure would mean a budget increase of 0.299 percent rather than 0.94 percent. He attributed the drop to a better-than-expected outlook in renewal of employee health benefits.

Pepe, as he has in the past, praised school insurance broker Brown and Brown for “shopping" for the carrier who would provide the Summit District with the most advantageous rates. The health benefits adjustment, the business administrator said, resulted in a $420,000 savings to the district.

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He added that the District’s high test scores, excellent school “package” and fiscal planning success also helped it to increase its reputation and bring about a great school product with considerable cost savings in a year in which the City saw a decrease in its ratables.

Through prudent use of the capital reserve and other methods of saving on buildings and grounds expenditures, the school administrator said, the District business office was able to reduce its overall reliance on bonding from the City to fund school construction projects.

Pepe gave credit to his staff, including former Assistant Business Administrator Donna Schneider, and the person who replaced Schneider when she changed roles, Kathy Masbang, for this year’s fiscal efficiency. He also said the success would not have been possible without the interest and participation of Board operations committee chairman Richard Hanley and committee members Debbie Chang and Chris Bonner. Additionally, he praised superintendent of schools June Chang for his input and cooperation supported by the other school administrators, principals and staff members.

Although fully supportive of the budget, Pepe, Chang and the rest of the school administrators and staff, Board of School Estimate member and Common Council member Robert Rubino wanted to know if the health benefits news would have been even greater if the district were allowed to shop across state boundaries for coverage.

Pepe replied that, in shopping for the best deal in coverage, Summit’s brokers were told not so much to relate the Hilltop City’s coverage to what other districts were doing, but to “look at us first” and get the best deal they could get for Summit. In the process, he said, “everything has to be truly vetted.” This year this meant that even Masbang and District Human Resources Director Matthew Block spoke with prospective carriers.

The business administrator warned, however, that next year might pose a greater challenge to produce the same results.

Pepe also told school estimate board member and Common Council finance chairman Steven Bowman that improvements made in school security over the past few years probably would have some positive effect on insurance rates.

“Everything we do has an effect,” he added, “but we are not certain what the exact effect will be.”

The administrator also said a suggestion by Mayor Nora Radest to use some of the health benefit savings directly to next year’s budget was a good one.

However, he noted, state law says that a district’s budget must be at the state “cap” limit on spending and have applied all waivers to the cap before it can offset planned budgetary spending by using savings such as the health plan savings seen this year.

Council president Michael McTernan wanted to know if the District anticipated any major capital projects, like the $17 million in school improvements of the past few years, that would require the schools to go back to the bond market.

Pepe replied that the District should be able to fulfill all currently project capital needs from its yearly budgets.

He added that the only project that possibly would require a “major build out” would be related to the institution of free, universal Full-Day Kindergarten.

School board education committee chairwoman Debra McCann said the budget, both in retaining positions added in 2016-17 and adding $186,000 in new positions for 2017-18 was fulfilling the board’s focus goals of:

  • Raising achievement for all; providing a consistently excellent education at every level in an environment that empowers each child to reach his or her potential.
  • Cultivating a love of learning through outstanding curricula, inspirational instruction and well-supported teachers and staff, who are dedicated to excellence.
  • Sustaining superior educational programs through timely investment, strong financial oversight and operational excellence.

The 2017-18 budget retains a virtual high school-coordinator/ instruction facilitator/tech coach, a literacy coach, both primary and secondary education director positions, a student assistant counselor at the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School and special education staff members, all originally approved in the previous budget.

It also adds: A second grade teacher at Franklin School, a half-time equivalent science teacher at Summit High School, due to the popularity of the advanced placement psychology course, and two half-time equivalent English language-learning, workshop basic skills instructors.

While both Board of Education and Board of School Estimate members praised the educational achievements made possible through the many improvements and advancements in City schools, they also said continued fiscal restraint was needed to enable City taxpayers to afford to support the high quality of Summit schools.

Board member Debbie Chang noted that, since she moved into Summit 15 years ago, her property taxes have increased 100 percent. She added, “this cannot continue,” while praising school officials for holding the line on spending while advancing quality.

Chang noted that 70 percent of the school budget was spent on supporting the District’s excellent staff, pointing out that District tuition reimbursement led to both Block and Washington School principal Lauren Banker receiving their PhDs this year.

Rubino praised the District's teachers for delivering a great product, and the students for applying what they learned to bring Summit schools the high rankings they have achieved over the years.

The councilman, however, urged continued vigilance over the Union County budget. He said County spending, in effect, “usurped” 5 percent more of the tax load than it did six years ago. He said this 5 percent could be used to improve the schools even more and give the City more funds to deal with some of its needs. Rubino urged Summit residents to show a “consistency of effort” in holding the County responsible for its spending.

Bowman praised the school leadership at all levels and noted that city schools helped Summit residents keep their home values high. He added, however, that he would like to see state officials reconsider sharing school funding more equally with all districts.

Two of the speakers, Radest and school board member Vanessa Primack said, however, they would like to see the Summit Public School District again consider free, universal Full-Day kindergarten for all Summit students.

Full-Day Kindergarten (FDK) now is offered only on a tuition basis for those families who can afford the price tag of about $7,000 per year and on a scholarship basis for students eligible under the federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program.

The mayor said, “I do want to point out that while only 30 percent of households have children in the public schools at the moment, many of us have sent our children through the schools and have benefited greatly and others have moved here because they intend to matriculate into our schools. People move to Summit primarily because of the excellent schools and the impact on our property values.”

She added, “Lastly I have one request. I would like to see the Board of Education take another look at the feasibility of providing Full-Day kindergarten to any family in Summit that desires that level of education for their children, whether they can afford it or not. Superintendent Chang has fully endorsed Full-Day Kindergarten and I encourage to Board to review the numbers again.”

Primack noted, although she fully supported to 2017-18 school budget, she would like to see additional guidance staffing at Summit High School, robotics in kindergarten to 12th grade, and a three-to-four-year plan to establish FDK.

Board of Education President David Dietze, in his remarks, praised the administration, staff members at all levels and the three members new to the Board this year, who he said performed excellently and quickly adopted to their new roles. Dietze said, however, in considering fiscal responsibility, school board members had to realize that paying too little to produce a mediocre product would not work, just as you cannot spend for spending’s sake because this often does not result in a good product.

Dietze cited as an example of good fiscal decisions the combining of the position of school public information officer with executive assistant to the superintendent, when communications officer Karen Greco left for an elevated position in Nutley. He praised Mia Bivaletz for her contributions in the newly-combined position.

During the public portion of the Board of School Estimate meeting, former Councilman-at-Large Gregory Drummond -- a graduate of the Summit public schools -- pointed out that mathematics students at Summit High School, who are “pegged” into certain tracts, are not permitted to take geometry during the Summit District’s summer session. He added that the course may cost up to $1,000 in summer sessions in non-public districts and schools like Newark Academy benefit.

Drummond added all Summit students should be permitted to take summer courses in the City district, “not just those favored by department heads.”

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