SUMMIT, NJ - Largely because of an unexpected $400,000 state aid windfall, the Summit Public School District has delivered and approved a preliminary 2020-21 school budget that came in below the two-percent cap mandated by the state. The budget -- totaling $66,872,641 net after anticipated revenues -- reflects an increase of 1.83 percent, is $109,595 below cap, and will result in a tax levy of $105.70 per year for the average home.
Superintendent June Chang and Assistant Superintendent for Business Lou Pepe presented the budget to the Board of School Estimate (BOSE), the body that will vote on the budget in a special meeting on March 30. The BOSE is made up of Mayor Nora Radest, who votes only in case of a tie, two members of the Summit Board of Education (BOE) -- Operations Committee Chair Chris Bonner and Board President Vanessa Primack, and two members of Summit Common Council -- Former Council President and Ward I Council Member, David Naidu, and Ward 2 Council Member Greg Vartan.
The BOSE meeting was followed by a special meeting of the Board of Education, convened specifically to discuss the budget.
Discussion from both Boards commended the hard work that was done by Pepe and the District to create a lean budget that focused on efficiency while maintaining excellence in programming, but the question of the hard choices that did not have to be made because of the additional state funding lingered.
Former BOE President Deb McCann said, "Due to the additional state aid, we were fortunate in that we did not have to make tough choices this year. But before next year’s budget, the District, with help from the new Superintendent‘s fresh perspective, should think creatively about ways to operate more efficiently, so that if we don’t get additional state aid, we can avoid having to make tough choices that impact students.”
Board member Josh Weinreich said that some people look at what else can be cut from the budget while others -- who are “more ambitious” -- look at what more can be done. He said that these varying approaches are “thrown together” to balance it out.
Weinreich said that part of the balancing act includes identifying the “marginal programs” that should not continue to receive funding and to “get rid of programs that don’t measure up.”
“We need to keep an eye on the product,” he said. “If we lose vision, we fall short.”
“Let’s be aspirational, and then be disciplined,” he said.
Chang said that the key drivers for the budget were staffing needs, maintaining competitive salaries, the cost of health benefits, maintaining operational efficiency, increase in the cost of mental health services for students, programming, and social-emotional services.
He said that the District “strives for scholarly learning, a love of learning, and to optimize educational opportunities.”
Chang noted some of the District’s successes, including a 26-percent increase in acceptances and a 46-percent increase in attendance to colleges and universities deemed “most competitive” by Barron’s.
Looking ahead, he said, a goal of the budget was to continue the District’s commitment to technology initiatives, citing the more than 3,000 Chromebooks in use. The technology budget for next year will actually decrease from $1.487 million to $1.222 million.
Pepe broke down where the budget will be spent:
$23.5 million (34.3 percent) for regular program instruction
$13.1 million (19.1 percent) for personal services / employee health benefits
$6.1 million (8.9 percent) for special education
$3.8 million (5.6 percent) for maintenance of plant services
$3.4 million (4.9 percent) for Fund 12 capital outlay
$3 million (4.5 percent) for support services / school administration
He said that the remaining 23 percent of the budget, or $22 million, is made up of categories below $2.4 million including facility maintenance, guidance, transportation, and libraries.
One of the biggest budget drivers is healthcare costs. He said that Summit’s average increase over the past eight years has been 4.5 percent, compared with 9.8 percent for the New Jersey State Health Benefits Plan.
Pepe detailed the budgetary cost per pupil as compared with other nearby top-performing districts. He said that Summit has fallen right in the middle, coming in at $16,085 with Berkeley Heights, Millburn, Bernards Township, and Livingston paying more and Ridgewood, Madison, Westfield, Scotch Plains/Fanwood, and Chatham paying less.
But, he said, Summit has the greatest percentage of its budget allocated to classroom instruction.
He also gave a history of state aid for Summit as a percentage of the total budget. The numbers, he said, have nearly edged back up to where they were at 2009-10 levels, when state aid made up 4.3 percent budget. In the 2020-21 budget, the $3,002,956 in state aid will constitute four percent of the budget. This state aid is a $415,523 increase over last year’s numbers.
In the comparative analysis of the other school districts cited, Summit had the lowest five-year average percent increase against inflation.
“Summit’s five-year average of .7 percent remains well below the five-year average rate of inflation of 1.7 percent, or one complete percentage below,” Pepe said.
Our goal, he said, is to deliver quality educational programming with measurable results, while “keeping property taxes stable and home values strong.”
Naidu asked about “the topic which is on everyone’s mind.” That is, in the context of the budget, how the District would deal with COVID-19.
“Are you adequately prepared,” he asked, and is anything being done financially for preventative maintenance.
“Yes on both accounts,” Chang said. “We are prepared to be one step ahead.”
Pepe said that the District has the capability to decontaminate any area of a school, and that an adequate supply of antibacterial products -- 50 cases of Purell sanitizer -- has been delivered.
He said that the schools are ‘deep cleaned” every summer and that they do “disinfectant-type cleaning” for flu prevention.
“If we have to shut the District down we have the ability to do a total disinfecting,” he said.
Mental Health Services
Vartan asked for more information on what the District is doing to deal with the ever-growing need of mental health service for students.
Chang said that a full-time mental health clinician is part of the budget.
He said that the clinician will “come in and take a full caseload of high-risk students,” and will be available for other students as well.
Chang said that at the midpoint of the school year, 77 students have been identified by staff as high risk.
He said that with this new staff position, “we may be able to catch ones we haven’t identified.”
Adding the clinician to the staff will allow the District to “bring back” students who have been placed out of District.
“We want to be proactive, not reactive,” he said. “It can be tragic,”
Radest said that great care is taken to meet the needs of high-achieving students, those who struggle, and those with mental-health needs, but that she has “concerns” about the needs of the children who come from homes where “the parents haven’t been to college.”
These students are “underserved,” she said.
Chang said that Summit is “about the well-rounded experience for all students.”
He said, “It comes down to one thing: every dollar we spend we’re committing to ensure a well-rounded balance, and those kids are part of it.”
Pepe said that $700,000 per year is invested in English Language Learners programs.
Radest said that it was “imperative” to keep the budget below cap.
“You’ve gotten where we need to be,” she said.
Radest said, “I don’t think you will find another District in the state or in the country as effective as Summit.”
BOE member Donna Miller said that Summit is doing a “great job” compared to other districts.
“Great instruction and good fiscal responsibility,” she said.
BOE member Peggy Wong said that this budget “thinks about every kid and takes a holistic view to make sure that every kid is benefiting.”
The budget will now be sent to the Executive County Superintendent for approval. After that, there will be a March 30 public hearing and vote on the budget by the BOSE.
During the public comment portion, Jim Bennett urged the Board to allow the .17 percent of banked cap to expire, which happens if it has not been used for three years.
Nina Sanders asked the Board to reconsider elementary class size, particularly at Brayton. She said that while children with special needs are being serviced, that those students who are not being challenged by their classwork find school “boring,” and, because of the larger class sizes, the teachers do not have the “time and resources” to address their needs.
The BOE approved the withdrawal from capital reserve $1.4 million for the Summit High School roof repair project, including $44,000 for architectural services.
The Board also approved $229,712 from maintenance reserve, which includes $84,000 for flooring projects at Brayton and Washington Elementary Schools and $145,711.49 for Direct Install lighting upgrades and HVAC work at all five elementary schools and Wilson School.