Education

Minds Versus Financial Matters: Budget Overview Illustrates Tension Between Summit Public Schools Educational Goals, Property Taxes, and State Aid

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Assistant Superintendent for Business Lou Pepe and Superintendent of Schools June Chang led a budget presentation at the Board of Education workshop session. Credits: Summit Public Schools Photo Services
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SUMMIT, NJ—The Summit Board of Education, at its first workshop meeting of 2017, was given a rundown of the budget process by Superintendent of Schools, June Chang, and Lou Pepe, Assistant Superintendent for Business.

As stated by Pepe, the major objective of the District is to “deliver a quality educational program with measurable results while keeping property taxes stable and home values strong.” Pepe and Chang noted that of an approximately $66.4 million budget, $4.6 million would come from other revenues, and $61.8 million would come from taxes.

In order to keep local property taxes in check while producing a high quality education, they noted, the District looks for innovative ways to deliver top-of-the-line instruction while keeping costs under control. The pair also noted that school property taxes increases have been kept under one percent over the last several years in Summit.

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Chang noted the Hilltop City schools are seeking ways to reallocate staff and resources, evaluating the effects of their programs and practices and adjusting where needed, yet seeking more areas that will allow students to express their interests such as increasing Advanced Placement course offerings and instituting more clubs to appeal to a diversity of interests.

He added the District is utilizing methods advocated by IXL Learning, which provides analytical tools to help track student and classroom performance and identify areas for academic improvement. The methods advocated, he noted, measure data growth over time, emphasize expanded program offerings and offer innovative opportunities such as those obtained through those increased advanced placement offerings.

The superintendent said data shows that 97.6 percent of students have demonstrated growth through use of IXL methods.

Another area where Summit students have demonstrated excellent outcomes, Chang said, is in the PARCC assessments, where they have consistently outperformed their peers in other PARCC consortium districts around the nation.

One of the methods Summit utilizes, he added, is “guiding advanced placement and SAT trends” through supportive programs to better prepare students for testing in the two areas. A second method is through enhanced differentiation in instruction. Chang noted.

Another major component is the integration of new technologies into the classroom wherever possible, the educator said. Many of the innovations are made possible, according to Pepe, through savings such as reallocation of personnel through attrition, renegotiation of contracts for such items as emphasizing professional development, signing agreements that save on energy procurement, and being careful in labor agreements and collective bargaining.

Another area of savings, according to the assistant superintendent for business, is the the elimination of outside energy consultants and doing much of this work “in-house.”

Also, instruction has improved by investing in a curriculum focus by adding key personnel in the primary and secondary schools, updating and revising instruction from pre-k to 12th grade, and better meeting students’ emotional needs through mindset programs and use of student assistance counselors.

Additionally, he noted, the District obtains a great deal of revenue and innovative instructional programs by reliance on such community groups at the Summit Educational Foundation (SEF), Summit Performing Arts Resource Committee (SPARC) and other parent-and-community-supported organizations.

The future, according to Chang, will include implementation of new courses to increase honors offerings, enhanced language arts instruction in kindergarten to fifth grades, and more opportunities for students to translate learning to experience.

He noted this already is being done through partnerships with business organizations outside the schools, a number of field trip experiences, and such innovations as virtual learning.

Pepe added, however, that the District faces a number of challenges in the 2017-18 budget.

These include negotiation of a new contract with the Summit Education Association (SEA) and the increasing costs of health insurance for employees.

The business administrator noted that, while the passage of Chapter 78 in New Jersey about five years ago brought mandated employee funding of a portion of educators’ health benefits, Summit was “ahead of the curve” by mandating employee funding before the law was passed.

However, Pepe added, Chapter 78 will be fully funded this year, and this will contribute to pressures on District healthcare costs. In addition to rising healthcare costs, he said, there always is the possibility that state aid could be decreased or eliminated entirely as it was several years ago.

If this should become a reality, according to Pepe, the District would have to take a careful look at how to find savings in other areas and prioritize its most valuable assets and programs while looking for alternative methods of funding.

Resident Michael Wattick pointed out, however, that Governor Chris Christie has proposed changing the state educational funding formula to give every student in New Jersey the exact same amount of aid. The new formula calls for a flat $6,599 per student school aid system, replacing the current system in which each district is awarded different amounts. It is estimated Summit schools could gain more than $24 million additional in aid, according to Wattick.

In addition, he noted that New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney is seeking to form a commission to find another alternative to the current school funding formula.

Pepe said the state school business administrators association, where he is an official, has heard nothing specific about either proposal and they are telling their colleagues to count on keeping state aid figures for the coming year “flat” in their budgets.

Pepe added that, while he would welcome the extra revenue, it could create a “one-year revenue windfall,” which would run into the limitations of the 2 percent state cap on spending, causing a temporary large decrease in taxes one year followed by a large increase the following year.

He noted the only way this probably could be avoided is if every school district in the state received a cap waiver.

Wattick asked the Summit school officials, however, how best to effectively lobby for passage of an alternative to the current funding formula, which many suburban school officials say unfairly targets their districts to provide more funding to chiefly urban districts.

Chang and Pepe replied that residents should urge their legislators to work for changes in the funding formula.

On another matter, Chang and Laura Kaplan, District harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) coordinator, gave a rundown of HIB and violence incidents in the Summit schools for the last six-month reporting period.

In response to the report, resident Tara Willecke of 23 Mountain Avenue, asked a number of specific questions about the procedures City school officials followed in reporting incidents of alleged physical and sexual abuse between students, dealing with the alleged offenders, protecting the reported victims, the reporting of such incidents, and Chang's role in he process.

Chang generally replied that the teachers should be the first line of defense in dealing with allegations in their classrooms, and should make sure the allegations are brought to the attention of building principals, when it is appropriate to do so.

He added that, in rare instances, when principals believed circumstances required it, is he asked to intervene in such matters.

The superintendent said school officials had to remember “we are dealing with children” and educators should aim in such instances to make sure solutions are in the best educational interests of all children involved.

He also told Willecke that parents and, in fact, anyone who is aware of such incidents, could inform the state Division of Youth and Family Services of the incidents.

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