Education

Summit School Board Passes Tentative 2015-16 Budget; $67.2 Million Total Projects to $129 Tax Increase Per Average Home

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Board president Celia Colbert makes a point as superintendent of schools June Chang reviews his notes. Credits: Bob Faszczewski
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SUMMIT, NJ—The Summit Board of Education has adopted a tentative $67,184,546 budget for the 2015-16 school year.

The tentative spending plan, discussed and voted upon unanimously at the school board’s workshop session, includes $61,764,695 to be raised in local tax levies, resulting in a tax increase of approximately $129 on the average Summit home, assessed at $410,000, according to assistant superintendent for business Louis Pepe.

In addition, the tab includes an adjustment for increased costs of health benefits amounting to $454,639 and the withdrawal of $185,595 from the capital reserve fund to be used for concrete repair and paving projects at the Lawton C. Johnson Middle School ($78,250) and at Summit High School ($107,345).

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Pepe added that the health benefits adjustment allowed the school body to set the “cap” on its increase in school tax levies to increase by 2.7 percent rather than the two percent ceiling allowed under state law without the benefits waiver.

The overall increase in the budget, he noted, amounts to 1.79 percent, below the board goal for this budget year of keeping the increase under 1.85 percent.

Also, due to the fact that the school body operates on a fiscal year while the city operates on a calendar year, the $129 actually is an increase averaged over portions of two calendar years.

Pepe also noted that while budgets for Summit public schools and running the City have been averaging about one percent in increases over the past several years, the Union County budget in the same time has been averaging increases of six percent. This means, he said, that the city schools have been taking up a smaller and smaller slice of the overall Summit tax bill pie.

Since Summit’s schools are in a Type I school district, the final approval of the city’s school budget is given not by the Board of Education, but by the Board of School Estimate. That board this year includes Mayor Ellen Dickson, and common council members Michael McTernan and Sandra Lizza, in addition to school board president Celia Colbert and vice president Katherine Kalin.

School officials will present the details of their proposed budget to the Board of School Estimate on Tuesday, March 17, at 7 p.m., in the council chambers of City Hall. The school estimate board will vote on the proposed spending plan at a meeting scheduled to begin at 6:30 pm on Monday, March 30, in the council chambers.

In other business at the workshop session, board communications chairman James Freeman presented the results of the board’s recently-completed survey on its focus areas for the next three years.

One of the challenges of the process, Freeman said, was trying to obtain input from community members who are not members of the public schools staff, or do not have children in the schools because the board’s contact and email lists are chiefly composed of these two groups.

He urged residents to inform their neighbors who do not fall within these two groups to attend the board’s two public input sessions on the focus areas at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 16 and Tuesday, March 31, in the Summit High School Media Center.

The agenda, which will be the same at both meetings, will begin with a outline of the roles of the focus areas and the school body’s annual goals by newly-installed superintendent of schools June Chang, followed by a presentation on the survey results by Freeman. Meeting participants then will gather in “breakout sessions” to discuss more specific ideas on the focus areas. 

District communications specialist Karen Greco did point out at the workshop session, however, that efforts were being made through City community programs director Judith Josephs to reach out to senior citizen and other community groups for their input on the focus areas.

At the suggestion of board member and former board president Gloria Ron-Fornes, Freeman said he would be glad to hold additional focus group discussions with city seniors or other community groups.

Although members of the administrative cabinet, board members and other school officials will be present to guide the sessions along, Freeman said, they will not interject themselves into the discussions. At a Board of Education meeting after both sessions are concluded, the board actually will formulate the focus areas and annual goals and vote on them.

Speaking about the survey at the board workshop session, Freeman noted respondents had praise for the high quality of the staff and the strength of the curriculum, as well as the strength and breadth of its offerings.

Parents responding to the survey also highlighted effective communications in the schools and with PTO groups, and an effective learning environment, the communications chairman said.

Also raised as areas of importance were the improvement of requirements for specific course offerings, and the need to improve academic excellence not only for academically advanced students and those in special education, but also those who fall “in the middle.”

Expansion of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, architecture and mathematics) programs also was supported, as were more support for teachers and a stronger relationship between teachers and the school board. Respondents sought consistency in both of these goals across all departments and in schools in every area of the city.

Parents also highlighted Full-Day kindergarten, with a great deal of support for it, but some dissent, Freeman said.

Also highlighted was the high school’s college counseling department.

Most of the respondents supported the current focus areas, although many said they should be more specific.

The school body’s current focus areas are:

  • Raising achievement for all/elimination of achievement gaps between subgroups; having each child reach his/her potential.
  • Enhancing the social/emotional development of all students; education of the whole child in a nurturing environment.
  • Informing and engaging parents and the broader Summit community through enhanced communication and outreach.
  • Continuing fiscal management and operational efficiency to ensure long-term sustainability for quality education.

Reacting to the survey results, board member Debra McCann said she was impressed with the thought and time spent by respondents in answering the open-ended questions, adding that the school body should use the survey results to carefully structure its new focus areas.

She also said the survey and the focus group meetings should help the school body produce a “punch list” of items on which the district administration should follow up. Some of the suggestions required an overall approach, while there would be some “low-hanging” fruit that required more immediate attention, she noted.

Board president Celia Colbert said the board should do a better job of explaining focus areas, especially the current first focus area which, she noted, does focus on academic advancement for all children.

She added that the survey results pointed not so much to a need for advancement in every single area as the need for advancement in certain specific areas.

Ron-Fornes agreed that the first focus area needed to be reworded and it had to make clear that education in the Hilltop City should be directed as much as those students who would go on to community college as those who would go on to the top universities.

She added that the focus on “children in the middle” should begin very early in their academic years rather than waiting until their freshman year of high school.

Kalin added that the board should gather the data garnered from the survey into a form that would enable the district to focus on specific areas of improvement.

On another topic, Freeman said some survey respondents felt academic life in the district was too intense. Those who thought there might be too much homework, he said, also felt more rigorous instruction during the day could help reduce the homework load. Those who felt there was too much testing also saw the need for more rigor during the academic day, he said.

Board member David Dietze agreed with Kalin that data gleaned from the surveys should be used to focus more sharply on goals. He also said the survey results showed the importance of teachers and that the focus areas should bring about greater development of teachers.

Board member Richard Hanley said the board should hold a post-mortem both during the focus area discussion process and after the meetings concluded.

He also said Chang should report back on district progress being made in the focus areas.

The superintendent noted the focus area process was promoting a powerful dialogue and the district also needed to decide how, as a great district, it could focus more fully on becoming an intricate part of the community.

In his first report as the District’s top administrator, Chang said he had spent his first week meeting with a number of parties in the district and had met many students, including those in the economics club he visited while a congressional representative was addressing the club.

He also cited the work of assistant superintendent Julie Glazer in coordinating PARCC testing in the schools, and congratulated Anne Poyner other school staff members, and the student cast and crew of the high school production of “Sweeney Todd.”

On the first few days of PARCC testing, Glazer reported 13 students had originally decided not to take the standardized tests, but 31 additional students had decided not to take the tests. Much of this second group were afraid they would have to miss advanced placement classes to take PARCC, she noted.

Glazer added that high school principal Paul Sears and vice principal Stacy Grimaldi were working with teachers to make sure all students were treated equitably in the process.

During a policy committee report, Dietze and members of his committee noted the proposed policy on the so-called “Option 2” had been revised to allow up to 7.5 credits for internet courses rather than the originally-proposed “cap” of five credits. Additionally, he said, principals would be given the power to allow students to take courses offering more credits than the “cap.” However, staff and administrators will make sure “Option 2” courses do not overwhelm the other portions of a student’s program and that courses taken in conjunction with the Summit public schools are properly assessed.

Going back to the focus surveys, Debbie Chang of 15 Sherman Avenue suggested that the district set up “Remind 101 accounts” to better get its message out to those not directly involved with the schools.

Chang also asked that, if the district would not be using PARCC for placement purposes next year, whether it would continue to use NJAsk results or CogAt (the cognitive abilities test).

Glazer replied up to five measurements were used to make placements. She added that NJAsk scores still would be available and CogAt would possibly be reinstated.

 

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