Education

Summit School Board Adopts Tentative $69.5 Million 2017-18 Budget; Less Than One-Percent Increase Would Yield Average Household Tax Impact of $129.67

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The Summit Board of School Estimate receives the Summit Board of Education's 2017-18 budget presentation. Credits: Summit Public Schools Photo Services
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SUMMIT, NJ—The Summit Board of Education, following its initial presentation to the City’s Board of School Estimate, adopted a tentative 2017-18 school budget totaling $69,459,808, with anticipated revenues of $5,896,126 and the amount to be raised by local taxes set at $63,563,682.

Because Summit is a Type I school district, City voters do not cast ballots on the education budget. The final say on the spending plan is up to the Board of School Estimate, which traditionally is chaired by the mayor and includes two school board members and two representatives from the Summit Common Council.

This year, the school estimate board, chaired by Mayor Nora Radest, includes Council finance chairman Steven Bowman, Ward I Councilman Robert Rubino, Board of Education president David Dietze, and Board of Education vice president and operations committee chairman Richard Hanley.

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The Board of School Estimate will vote on the 2017-18 spending plan at a meeting scheduled for March 28, beginning at 7 p.m., in the Council Chambers of City Hall. The meeting will be preceded by a school board meeting in the same room, during which the Board of Education will take its final vote on adoption of the proposed budget.

Superintendent of Schools June Chang and Assistant Superintendent for Business Louis Pepe led the initial presentation of the proposed budget to the school estimate board, As outlined at a regular meeting of the school board a few weeks ago, the budget showed a 1.68 percent increase in the local tax levy in support of city schools.

However, the spending plan presented to the Board of School Estimate showed an increase of only .945 percent over the course of the budget year or 1.442 percent in the current calendar year. The school budget year spans portions of two calendar years.

The tax impact is projected to be $129.67 per year -- or $10.81 per month -- on the average Summit residential property owner, Pepe said.

A major reason for the smaller tax levy increase in the second presentation, according to Chang, is the fact that the Summit Public School District experienced significant savings when renewing its employee healthcare plans.

Pepe said one of the major reasons for the savings in health benefits, which take up $8.9 million or 13.1 percent of the budget, are the following features of the Summit School District’s membership in the CIGNA Minimum Premium Arrangement versus the conventional healthcare plan:

  • The plan is quasi self-Insured to protect against losses beyond premium.
  • It gives the District the ability to profit when claims are less than anticipated.
  • It has a fully-funded reserve of $1.5 million that is maintained for payment of  “runout claims,” which are outstanding at a time when -- and if -- the District decides to switch insurance carriers.

School officials also pointed out that state aid, which accounts for about three percent of revenue in the budget -- local taxes account for the 93 percent balance of the revenue -- remained “flat” this year, at $1,875,517.

Chang and Pepe noted, however, that savings in the budget did not mean the District is skimping on its programs, with $149,733 more for curriculum and $147,193 more for technology allocated in the budget.

Chang pointed out that the budget includes preservation of the following positions added in 2016-17:

  • A virtual high school coordinator/instruction facilitator/tech coach 
  • A literacy coach
  • Both primary education and secondary education director positions
  • A student assistance counselor at the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School
  • Special education staff members

The budget also adds $186,000 in new positions for 2017-18, including:

  • A second grade teacher at Franklin Elementary School due to the school’s growing population - $89,000
  • A half-time equivalent science teacher at Summit High School due to the popularity of the advanced placement psychology course - $32,500 
  • Two, half-time equivalent English language-learning, workshop basic skills instructors - $65,000

On another matter, and in response to a question from Dietze, Pepe noted that the District, in funding capital projects, attempts to spare the City from bonding expenses for its projects.

He pointed out that Summit, during the first round of state RODs grants, netted more from those grants than any other school district in the state. He also noted that the District is a leader, compared to school districts in almost every other neighboring community, in the percentage of the budget it devotes to “in-classroom” functions.

On the question of revenue from local groups that raise money to support the city’s schools, Pepe told Radest that the Summit Educational Foundation raises $300,000 to $500,000 per year, and the various athletic support organizations raise about $100,000.

Pepe added that these dollars pay for programs and materials that otherwise would have to be supported through the budget.

Chang said he would supply more specific data on the level of support from these groups at a later date.

Rubino wanted to know what efforts the District was making to raise additional revenues by charging groups -- outside the schools -- for use of school facilities, such as the recently-renovated Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School auditorium.

Pepe responded that, due to heavy usage of school facilities by the District’s own organizations and community organizations -- which are not charged for use of the facilities --  there is little available space in the schedule for use by other groups.

He added, however, that the District continues to look into charging outside groups, not only for use of in-building facilities such as the auditorium, but also for use of athletic facilities.

Related to cost containment and savings, Chang and Pepe both noted that the Summit District tries to cutback on full-time staff positions when it is practical and in line with curriculum needs, and they make room for more teaching positions by re-purposing other positions in the District.

For example, room for more teaching positions was made, Chang said, by altering the communications officer job description and position when the District's former head of communications, Karen Greco, departed in September for a similar role with the Nutley Public Schools. Greco's responsibilities were folded into a combination executive assistant-communications officer position.

Pepe said that a portion of the $800,000 in savings in the budget came from moving away from full-time positions, where appropriate, and repurposing other positions.

He added, however, that this sometimes is difficult in some classrooms such as basic skills, where it may take the same amount of staff to meet the needs of 15 students as it does to meet the needs to 20, non-basic-skills students.

Responding to another question from Rubino, Chang said the District does offer students, who are not aiming for college, opportunities for courses in vocational schools, such as the Union County Vocational-Technical School in Scotch Plains.

He also said other non-traditional options, such as the District’s partnership with New York University, are available to meet academic as well as vocational needs.

Hanley thanked Debbie Chang and Chris Bonner, his fellow operations committee members, for their input and for helping school administrators to produce the highest quality educational product in the most fiscally responsible manner, and he praised the educators for their leadership in attaining these goals.

Dietze said Hanley showed leadership in asking how the schools could do better while helping the District to “sharpen its pencils” in producing the most advantageous budget.

Rubino praised the school board for bringing the increase in under one percent, while providing more services. His comments were echoed by Bowman, who noted the district’s goals were attained while producing 'nationally-ranked' schools.

Radest agreed with the statements of her Board of School Estimate colleagues, and gave a great deal of credit to the staff and principals of the Summit schools for their cooperation.

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