SUMMIT, NJ—The Summit Board of School Estimate (BOSE) has approved a school budget totaling $67,184,546 for the 2015-16 school year. The budget, which will increase property taxes by 1.79 percent, will result in a tax increase for school purposes on the average Summit home, assessed at $410,000, of $129.93.

Because the Hilltop City is a Type I school district, the final local decision on the budget is made by the city’s board of school estimate. This year, that board is composed of Mayor Ellen Dickson, First Ward Councilman Michael McTernan, Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Lizza, Summit Board of Education President Celia Colbert and school board vice president Katherine Kalin.

The fact that final figures on the school board’s settlement of a three-year contract with the Summit Education Association (SEA), which represents teachers and other staff members, were not included in data provided to the school estimate board, appeared to weigh heavily against unanimous approval of the school body spending plan by the BOSE.

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A tentative three-year pact, agreed to about seven months after the expiration of the previous contract and after being referred to a state mediator, has not yet been formally ratified by either the SEA or the school board, as the SEA reviews salary guides and the education body reviews contract language.

Both McTernan and Lizza said in their remarks at the school estimate board meeting, during which the budget vote was taken, that they felt that they were not privy to final contract terms, which affect more than 60 percent of the school budget. In the end, Lizza cast the lone dissenting vote on the budget.

Dickson said she realized the role of of the Board of School Estimate was to set an absolute budget number which the board of education can’t exceed. 

Even though how that money is spent is totally up to the school district, there is a concern of the impact of the teacher settlement, she added, but said,  “I trust Lou (school business administrator Louis Pepe) that it can be accommodated within this budget.”

McTernan, like his school estimate board colleagues and the school board members who spoke at their meeting prior to the board of school estimate meeting, thanked Pepe and his staff, superintendent of schools June Chang, and former superintendent Nathan Parker for their hard work on the budget. 

He added that the public school system is Summit’s number-one asset, and it is important to keep excellence high not only for those who send their children to city schools, but also for other residents because it keeps home values high. 

Almost 50 percent of Summit’s taxes go to schools, and only 40% of residents send their children there, the councilman said, but he never heard anyone complain “it’s a bad deal.”  

He called this a testament to the hard work of the Board and the school administration, and praised Pepe for looking at funding programs that make Summit special with an eye toward keeping the budget in line with “the fiscal constraints we all must work under.”

McTernan said he was glad to see the budget below cap because he doesn’t believe it the cap bank per se, For the calendar year the increase will amount to 1 percent, and the ratable change will bring it to 1.6 percent for a fiscally prudent budget. The next fiscal year the budget. so far, is projected to increase 1.8 percent, with ratable changes bringing it to 2.4 percent,  adding, “next year I guess we are going to have to do a little work to come in under the 2 percent cap. I have no doubt that Lou and his team will try their hardest to get there.”

He said it was great to see Full-Day kindergarten expand, obviously responding to a demand in the community. He also was happy that the program now was costed to reflect much more accurately the marginal costs per child. People see the value in it, and are signing up for the program, which is good for taxpayers as well, McTernan added. 

On the SEA contract, however, he said it was “a little disconcerting”, that, while the numbers were “in the background” in the budget, negotiations still weren’t completed. 

Referring to the actual numbers of the contract settlement, the councilman added, “I find it personally difficult, as an elected official, to vote on a budget where I don’t have all details. In fact, three-fifths of the board of school estimate are in the dark as far as that goes.” 

He said he will, going forward, work with the council to make sure that never happens again, adding it was difficult to vote on budget when “we don’t really know what 60 percent of that budget is. I know what the number on the page is, but it is difficult to make sense of it when you don’t know what it is.” 

Lizza said it was evident that each school board member was “engaged, inquisitive and dedicated to their role.” 

Listening to Chang describe new school initiatives, especially with STEAM, “confirms this an exciting time to be a student in Summit.” 

However, she added, as McTernan mentioned, two thirds of the budget is comprised of salaries and benefits, and  “it is unfortunate timing and circumstance that the Board of Education and the Summit Education Association agreed to terms of  a contract in February, but the terms have yet to be disclosed publicly, as mandated by mediator, and not yet ratified by the SEA or school board."

Lizza continued, "Without public disclosure of the agreement and its terms we really don’t have full transparency into the budget. The public has a right to know what it is being taxed for, and, as an elected official who represents all Summit taxpayers I should have all the information necessary to intelligently determine the amount of appropriations. If I can’t explain what is in the budget and provide justification for Summit taxpayers, how can I approve it? Half of city taxes are taken up by the school budget. Two Board of School Estimate members have knowledge of the settlement terms and cast votes based on that knowledge, but three other members have no knowledge. I am not implying that the school board recommendations, as reflected in the budget, are inappropriate. I simply don’t know. I feel that my only choice is to, regrettably, vote 'no' tonight." The process is at fault, not the intentions. I look forward to full disclosure of the terms of the agreement so there can be another Board of School Estimate meeting, or when the common council votes to approve the budget  Future procedure should provide that board of school estimate members review the terms of the agreement before it is made public if they are required to vote on the school budget.”

Pepe responded that Dickson’s comments about the process were correct. 

“The Board of School Estimate does not and will not ever vote to ratify an agreement that’s under the jurisdiction of the Board of Education,” he said. “However, we do have to put together a budget annually that is impacted by negotiations. In many cases in the middle of negotiations or when we have negotiations coming, so when we put a budget together, it is based on information we have available. As CFO for the district, I am very secure that the budget we are advancing will be able to achieve the results of the settlement. It is not something you should be concerned about. One of the tenets of our responsibility is making sure, in partnership with the community, we have the ability to sustain the excellence or our system of education -- that is what guides our work. We are proud of the work we have accomplished this year.” 

Kalin, who also chairs the board operations committee. said the objectives of her committee and the board’s oversight of the budget are to:

  • Ensure every dollar spent is invested to ensure the best education for each student.
  • Opportunity is given to enable new initiatives to continuously raise the quality of Summit education, while thoughtfully pursuing other avenues to fund this opportunity.
  • Their responsibility is to eliminate, as far as humanly possible, waste or inefficiency without inflicting harm on Summit education. 

Although the operations committee provides the oversight of these three tenets, they cannot be expected to review every detail, and the responsibility for a more detailed review falls to the business office and supervisory staff.

She added, if Summit is to be maintained as a high quality district, it must have strong support through curricular programs and continue to raise the bar through co-curricular and guidance programs . 

She noted that fiscal responsibility has seen a declining rate of growth in budget increases for the past seven years with budgets at or below the cap. 

The committee’s internal goal was a 1.85 percent increase, and the budget came in below that, even while state aid remained flat, maintaining academic programs, maintaining, not increasing class size, implementing PARCC and all its changes, and accommodating the SEA settlement-even with $14 million in facilities projects in the last five years at the lowest financing rates in history, Kalin said. 

She added that the school budget had a compound annual growth rate of one percent over the last five years, which enabled the city to maintain a two percent annual growth rate in its budget while county spending grew at six percent on average. 

Colbert added, “A budget represents a community’s choice -- whether, how much, when -- each decision reflects a community’s priorities and values. While individual choices may change from year to year, overarching priorities and values do not.” 

She noted that, in Summit, these values reflect a goal to provide a superior education experience for students who attend the city’s public schools. Its success is measured by the breadth and rigor of a particular program, and strength and variety of the district’s offerings. 

“We seek environment nuturing and supporting for students,.and rewarding and responding for staff.”

The school board president added that every three years the board asks the staff and community to set focus areas to guide district goals for the next three years. 

This year a community survey was included to assess strengths and weaknesses, she said. There was a lot of feedback. 

“While people may differ on the composition of a particular component of each educational experience, there is a strong shared sense that this includes academic rigor, strong co-curricular programs, a respected and valued staff, access to the right technical and other resources, and high expectations for  every student. There was not a lot of feedback about cost containment in the survey or the March 16 focus area discussions. There was a concern, however, that we not use cost containment as an excuse for not providing fair compensation or as a rationale for under-investment in programs or students. The community also expects the board to make smart financial decisions. I believe the staff and the board have crafted a budget to reflect the community vision of a superior educational experience.. Assessments and decision making are heavily depend on the skills and commitment of the administration and the staff,” she concluded.