SUMMIT, NJ - The Summit Board of School Estimate on Monday unanimously approved the 2013-3014 school budget and also unanimously praised the quality of city schools and for the fiscal skill of the city’s education officials in passing a budget that will increase by only 1.88 percent for the life of the budget and 0.94 percent for the calendar year.

The total $65,108,499 operating budget includes $60,517,972 to be raised from local property taxpayers and $804,864 in other revenues. These revenues include $563,284 from the federal I.D.E.A. (Individuals with Disability Education Act), $64,510 in federal Title I funds, $38,577 in Title II funds and $18,041 in Title IV funds.

The budget will result in a tax increase of $31.89 in each of the two calendar years of the budget for the average Summit home assessed at $410,000.

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Since Summit is a Type I school district its board of education members are all appointed by the mayor and final approval of its budget is in the hands of the board of school estimate, which includes the mayor, two councilmen and two representatives from the board of education.

Serving on the board this year, in addition to Mayor Ellen Dickson, are Councilman Dave Bomgaars, chairman of the finance committee; finance committee member Councilman Robert Rubino, board of education president George Lucaci and board operations chairman Edgar Mokuvos.

School Business Administrator Louis Pepe, in his presentation on the budget, reminded school estimate board members that the budget voted on Monday will not cover a proposed fullday kindergarten program or many of the capital projects included in the board’s capital plan, on which the school estimate board will vote on May 9.

Pepe added the budget approved Monday fits in with board goals to develop and implement budgetary strategies with city taxpayers in mind, avoid bonding if possible and develop a five-year plan for capital improvement.

“This process requires strong leadership, both from the board of education and the board of school estimate, creativity and a realization of needs versus wants,” the school business administrator noted.

He also said the school board was able to achieve its goals through the hard work of the school staff, principals and supervisors together with the education body and under the operations committee leadership of Mokuvos.

He also praised the dedication of his business office staff and, in particular, assistant school business administrator Donna Schneider.

Dickson cautioned, however, that many increases in the budget were driven by increasing enrollment.

Responding to a question from Rubino, Pepe said any savings in the current operating budget could, in fact, be used to fund capital projects.

However, he added, those savings were not designated for specific projects, such as fullday kindergarten, when they were transferred from the operating budget. 

Pepe also said it was his estimation that up to $1 million in capital projects could be funded before the board had to request the city to use its bonding power. Fullday kindergarten could be among the capital projects considered for funding, the business administrator pointed out.

The administrator also noted that, since the 2013-2014 spending plan increased by only 1.88 percent over the previous budget, under the state “cap” law the school body could “bank” the excess between the 1.88 percent increase and the 2 percent cap limit. Both he and Mokuvos were quick to point out, however, that this did not mean the board had extra funds to use, only that it had extra funding capacity should it be needed for an unexpected emergency expense.

Responding to a question from Bomgaars, Pepe said that this year’s capital reserve--surplus accumulated from previous current expense budgets--would be used, for example, to finance new roofs on Washington, Jefferson and Franklin Schools and to pay for the architectural and other professional fees associated with these projects.

Despite the fact that Monday’s vote did not include funding for fullday kindergarten (FDK), the topic did elicit warnings from residents and city officials and a defense of the proposal by Lucaci.

Resident Woody Weldon said the outcome of the board’s five-year plan was “pivotal” for Summit, adding that the approval of the fullday system could send a further signal to “empty nesters” and other members of the majority of Summit residents without students in the city schools that it was time to leave the city.

He wanted to know why the school district, which several years ago established the primary centers at Wilson and Jefferson School, would once again ask for residents to support an unmandated program.

Councilman Tom Getzendanner, a long-time opponent of taxpayer-funded fullday kindergarten, said that “if an expensive new program such as FDK is offered free of charge it could significantly worsen” the disproportionality between the fact that 51 percent of Summit’s total tax levy goes to education and the fact that only 30 percent of the community directly uses the public school system.

He urged the school board to create new non-tax revenue sources by charging tuition for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten and reduce its reliance on state aid which has proven an unreliable source of revenue.

Charging tuition, he added, would be “avoiding parochial and private schoolers from free-riding our early education."

Dickson said she and council members, at this time, did not favor FDK because they felt it would take badly-needed funds away from such vital projects as the proposed additions at Franklin and Jefferson Schools, renovations to the auditorium and science laboratories at the Lawton C. Johnson Middle School and security upgrades in the elementary schools.

Lucaci, however, who often has cited studies that point to a great educational advantage from FDK, said the board and the city need to think of innovative ways to meet not only the present but the future needs of city students to enable them to compete academically on both a national and international level.

He added the school body needs to convince residents and city officials that they would be sorry in the future if they didn’t take advantage of the current opportunity to invest in the advantages offered by FDK.

The school board president noted board members are continuing to conduct informal sessions to inform the public about their proposals at the Middle School on Saturday mornings, both this Saturday and next Saturday, and the board will hold a town hall-type meeting in the Summit High School Media Center on April 18.

On another school budget-related matter, Getzendanner said the board should not count its “unused CAP headroom” as if it’s “found money.”

“I’d like to think Summit now creates is own headroom--by restructuring old programs, raising teacher productivity and upgrading facilities,” he added. “Zero-based budgeting makes us the best financially managed district in New Jersey, bar none! Please don’t break faith with the taxpayers now and revert back to excessive increases. Under and appointed (not elected) school board, shouldn’t the board of school estimate have to approve any CAP banking like city hall does every year?”

Rubino agreed with Getzendanner that the school body should adopt guidelines on judicious use of the CAP bank similar to those adopted by council and the city administration.

He did, however, praise the board and school administration for greatly improving the school district’s fiscal picture and cited the Summit Education Foundation for funding a guidance counselor position at the high school directly targeted at college admissions.

He said the board should be wary of increasing class size, however, especially from the incoming fifth grade classes.

Bomgaars noted Superintendent of Schools Nathan Parker had taken school estimate board members on a tour of the middle school, Franklin and Jefferson to point out the need for improvements in those schools.

He also praised school officials for bringing more special education students into regular classes in the city’s schools and returning more special education students who previously went out of the district to Summit, thus saving the district a large amount of money.

The council finance chairman also noted the council adopted a city budget with only a 0.32 percent increase, thus resulting in both city and school budgets with increases under 1 percent.

Mokuvos said the fact the school district was able to bring in three budgets below 2 percent “spoke volumes” about the financial abilities of Pepe and his staff.

He also said operational efficiencies instituted in the district will help it avoid the “tsunami” of increasing enrollment while enhancing educational excellence.