SUMMIT, NJ - Although it stated at its January meeting that the Summit Public Schools Budget -- for the second consecutive year -- would likely exceed the state-mandated two-percent cap in 2020-21, the Summit Board of Education now says that the cap threshold is "within sight." 

District Assistant Superintendent for Business Lou Pepe said, at the Board's February meeting, that the budget is now “much closer to cap,” and, at the moment, is about $240,000 over.

Citing many outside influences -- such as rising healthcare costs and salary negotiations -- that are driving the increase, Board Operations Committee Chair Chris Bonner said on January 16 that, “We predict going over the two percent cap and will show a detailed plan to show the drivers and what investments need to be made." At the same meeting, Pepe said that it is “more challenging” to come in under the two-percent cap.

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However, Board President Vanessa Primack said, in her president’s comments February 13, that until the Operations Committee makes a formal recommendation to the full Board to exceed cap, that it is not a given.

“The Board has not yet given approval to go over cap,” she said, adding that “We believe in observing cap."  Primack said that the current school budget is the first time that the budget has gone over cap since 2011, when the cap was introduced. 

She said that “tremendous thought and mountains of deliberation” were given to the budget so that the numbers could remain within cap, while still delivering to the students of Summit an excellent public school system.

“We are always putting the students first,” she said.

Budget Presentation

Pepe presented a budget update that outlined some efficiencies the Board would be able to make to reduce the budget. Pepe’s presentation was informal, without an accompanying PowerPoint or handouts.

He gave a short history of the budget, and said that the District has “generated a significant amount of ‘banked cap’ over the years.”

Banked cap allows for an exception to the two percent cap rule. When a district has expenses related to items such as enrollment or health care it can “bank” the increases for up to three years and incorporate the money into tax increases beyond the cap.

He said that the District is mindful of budgeting restraints, but can’t, as an example, solely hire teachers who are “in their first year out of college.” 

The largest newfound savings -- $500,000 -- will be realized by leasing technology equipment for a second year.

When asked for clarification on the $500,000, Pepe told TAPinto Summit after the meeting, “We're simply leasing technology equipment which is student instructional equipment, i.e. Chromebooks, computers for computer labs, and I.T. related equipment for instruction. This is simply utilizing a finance option to spread the payments over the next five years and as such, reduce the impact on the tax levy by as much as one percent.”

He outlined a few other examples of where the budget has been reduced since last month’s budget presentation.

These include savings of:

  • $20,000 -- professional development
  • $25,000 -- reusing AP History textbooks
  • $30,000 -- delaying the replacement of instruments
  • $40,000 -- data analysis
  • $12,000 -- curriculum writing

Pepe said, “It’s not like programs are getting picked on here; we holistically look at the entire District so there is equity and no program gets left out.”

He said that the budget is “equitable, financially responsible, and free of political influence.”

In terms of cutting any programs to reduce costs, Pepe said that a major program cut would be “reported out” in a committee report.

“We’re lucky we’re not there,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t keep looking.” He said that with all of the cost savings over the years, the District is “kind of running out of efficiencies” to implement. 

Another cost savings, he said, will be “Direct Install,” a new state-run incentive program that will pay for up to 70 percent of energy efficiency upgrades such as lighting and HVAC, adding that all fluorescent lights in each elementary school will be replaced and that should net a $125,000 reduction in electric bill costs after the first year.

A big driver of the budget will be the amount of state aid that Summit receives this year. The figures, which they expect to be flat, should be released shortly after Governor Murphy gives his annual address on February 24.  

Budget Transparency

Speak Up Summit President Paola Acosta, during the public comment portion of the meeting, said that in past years there were more detailed budget presentations given by various department heads. She said that it is very useful to have a visual to help articulate the budget.

“I remember itemized budgets were presented; they were very clear,” she said, adding, "Without visuals, it is difficult to comment,” she said. 

Chang said that Pepe’s presentation was just an update, and that there would be a more detailed presentation at the next budget meeting with “enough time” for input and comment.

Pepe said that there were “no big changes this year.”

“Last year we had FDK and class size issues; this year there are no big issues, there are no drivers except salary and benefits.”

“There will be ample opportunity to understand what is in the budget,” he said.

The upcoming Board meeting schedule is as follows:

March 5 -- Special Budget Meeting

March 12 --  March Board of Education Meeting

March 30 -- Board of School Estimate Meeting

After the meeting, Acosta elaborated on her comments. She said that, although she has no doubt that the Board and the Administration are committed to balancing the budget while providing an excellent education, “seeing the budget discussion evolve from very detailed presentations from different departments (Special Education, Tech department, etc.), to general overviews in a summary presentation of the budget draft by Lou Pepe, I'm starting to have the feeling that it is the BOE and the administration who are not interested in having that conversation.” 

“By not having information accessible for me to look at and analyze more than once, the possibilities of learning about the decision process and clarify questions to provide feedback, are significantly reduced,” she said.

Public Feedback -- Don’t Exceed the Cap

Several residents expressed concern about the possibility that the budget might come in over the two percent cap.

Former Councilman Tom Getzendanner requested that the Board rescind the universal, free Full-Day Kindergarten (FDK) program and revert to a tuition-based program.

“I know firsthand how hard it is to keep Summit affordable,” he said

He said that less than 30 percent of the Summit households “directly use” the public school system.

He also suggested that the seven public school libraries should be converted to branches of the Summit Free Public Library, which, he said, is “drastically overfunded by statutory earmark.”

Jim Bennett said that past Councils “exercised fiscal prudence” before they used banked cap, and requested the Board do the same. 

“I call on the Board to make the tough calls to keep the budget within the cap,” he said.  

Special Education Presentation

Director of Special Education Services Doreen Babis presented an in-depth report on her strategic vision for the District.

The notable takeaway is that general education students have become increasingly in need of special services. These are students who have been identified as “at risk.” They might have stress levels so high that they are hospitalized, in need of at-home tutoring services, or otherwise need support. These students range in age from kindergarten all the way through high school.

To support the growing need for emotional support, the District approved last month the hiring of a part-time behavioral specialist. Sonia Rodrigues, program director of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care’s School Based Programs, joined Babis in her presentation to the District.

Babis said that there is “lots of overlap” between her department and general education. She said that she “works closely to serve the needs of all students in the district.”

Students with Individualized educational plans (IEPs)

She said that “a well-rounded student is career, community, and socially ready.”

The department will be reorganized, and this will give the District the opportunity to take in students from other Districts who will pay a tuition to Summit.

Students from 18-21 years old will be moved out of Summit High School and into the community center. They will be taught skills such as surfing the internet, applying for jobs, and how to read a newspaper.

Babis said that the District will also be working on communication. She said that “collaboration with parents” is critical to the success of the program.

She said that students with disabilities have IEPs , but “the path for each student looks different.” Some go to college, some join the workforce, and others join the community “to the best of their ability.”

She said that the District always tries to see if they can serve the needs of the students in-District. 

One area under consideration, she said, is a more flexible school day for those students who find the current full day program too challenging. She said that she has visited schools in other districts that have incorporated this program. 

“The IEP process can be very daunting for parents,” she said.

Her goal is to improve the “home-school connection” with a newsletter, a survey, webinars, and increased parent involvement. 

Several initiatives have already or will take place:

  • The reopening of the school store at Summit High School, which is run by special education students.
  • Integrated sports teams and Special Olympics.
  • A Unified Club for video games, board games, karaoke, etc.

Emotional Impact

Babis said that many students are suffering from extreme stress.

“The hot topic is mental health,” she said. 

A growing number of students are “not fully accessing their education,” she said. This, she said, manifests itself in school avoidance, depression and anxiety, aggressive behaviors, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and self-harm. 

“We are seeing an increase from last year in the number of students faced with serious mental health issues as well as an increase in the intensity of problematic behaviors,” she said.

She said that the mental health condition of one student impacts the whole school community; across the country, suicide and school shootings are both on the increase.

“The safety and well-being of one student impacts the entire learning environment,” she said. “Students in crisis need an intense level of support.”

Babis said that the newly-approved mental health clinician position will help meet the needs of the most at-risk students, improve attendance rates by addressing school avoidance / refusal cases, decrease the number of students on home instruction, and provide training for staff, parents, and families.

Rodrigues said that the goal is to keep students in district, to reduce the stigma of mental health issues, that Summit is not unique--the issues is statewide, and that the state assembly has become quite interested in that schools across the state are being impacted.

“There is an effort to identify kids at an early stage before it becomes a crisis,” she said. 

She said that intervention at school is a great “point of prevention.” The schools can intervene and provide treatment for these students, she said. 

The District will teach mental health at every level K-12, she said. “Children will know who to go to if they need help,” she said, “And they will ‘normalize’ it and know that it is okay to ask for help.”

“It’s normal to feel anxious and have anxiety,” she said.

The goal, she said, is to have a mental health clinician on staff for the full year to assess suicide risk so that the student does not need to go to the emergency room. The staff person can handle medication management, and can identify “warning signs.” 

According to their presentation: sixteen percent of students across the US have “seriously” considered suicide; 20 percent of teens are diagnosed with a mental health disorder; and suicide is the second leading cause-of-death in youths 15-24.

The clinician can “address anxiety and depression so the student is not reaching to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate,” she said. 

The program also gives staff members the tools they need to manage their own stress.

She said that the cost of the program is less than what it costs to send two students out-of-District.

Babis said that the number of Summit students needing help this year is increasing.

“We are getting several calls a week for students needing evaluation,” she said. 

Laura Kaplan, Director of Guidance, said that there were four incidents in less than 24 hours at Summit High School.

City Councilman David Naidu, who was at the meeting, said that if the resources are needed, then the public needs to know what the problem is -- they need to know of the trends with details. 

Student Safety Data System Presentation

Chang gave the twice-yearly report on incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) in the schools. This report covered the period from September 1 - December 31, 2019.

He said that he is “happy to report that some numbers have gone down.” 

He said that although the “numbers fluctuate,” the work that is being down at all levels is “having an impact.”

He said that looking ahead, the numbers tend to spike in February and March, because this is the longest period without a scheduled school calendar break. 

The report states that “assault” increased from zero to four incidents from this same period last year. Assault, Chang said, could mean bumping into someone into a locker, holding someone tightly, or pushing. “Fights” dropped from six to one. Confirmed substance abuse use dropped from two to one, and possession dropped from three to two, and suspected was one incident. Chang said that “suspected” is a new criteria -- it means that someone refused to take a test. Weapons went from zero to one. Chang said that a weapon is categorized as “any tool” that can be used as a weapon. 

Physical aggression and inappropriate physical contact went from three and two to none, respectively. Inappropriate behavior and inappropriate behavior II both went from zero to three incidents. Racial / derogatory dropped from six to zero. Acceptable use policy and insubordination both dropped from two incidents to one incidence. 

Director of School Counseling Laura Kaplan said that the schools are “being mindful” to include restorative measures in the remediation of these issues. She said that they are finding out more of what took place so that the incidents will not reoccur. 

She said that the numbers have “remained consistent” for three years, in terms of the number of cases that were investigated and confirmed. 

Last year, she said, the law changed to allow principals to do a preliminary investigation to determine whether a case met the criteria of HIB and whether it warranted investigation. This, she said, meant that if a case where investigated it was much more likely to be confirmed. 

She said that some remedial measures included District-wide professional development on Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights and the District Policy; training on school climate and culture; and on Legal One Updates, and YEA programs. She said that remedial programs for the students included a Week of Respect, Red Ribbon Week, Advisory at both Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School and Summit High School, THRIVE, the No Place for Hate program, assemblies, classroom lessons, and school climate meetings. 

Chang said that “every single situation” follows every protocol, and is “taken very seriously.”

In the Operations Committee report, Bonner said that the bid to repair the roof at Summit High School was opened, and Integrity Roofing was chosen to perform the project for $1.345 million, which will come from the capital reserve account and will be contingent upon final approval of the budget.

“There will be no impact to the tax levy,” Bonner said. 

He also said that the District is in talks with the City to share the cost of resurfacing the middle school parking lot.

Education Committee Chair Donna Miller said that the committee met with Assistant Director of Education Tanya Lopez, who presented “interdisciplinary units” which are the combining of two or more academic subjects to “provide students broader more interesting,” Miller said.

Policy Committee Chair Michael Colon said that the policy on student suicide prevention is being rewritten to reflect the role of risk intervention.

In the Communications Committee report, Chair Dr. Peggy Wong said that the Board will post a Board of Education meeting recap on social media and on its web=site. 

Primack gave an update on the search for a new superintendent to replace Chang, who will be leaving the Summit District and has accepted the position as the superintendent of the Rockville Centre, New York school District at the end of this school year.

She said that the Board will be hiring a national search firm to help identify prospects, and will be conducting focus groups with stakeholders. A search planning committee, made up of Board members, was also formed.

Achievement Gap

In a public discussion of items not on the agenda, Former Board of Education President George Lucaci, Dr. Betty Livingston Adams, and S4A (African-American Action Association) President Jesse Butler, spoke to the need to eliminate -- not just reduce -- the achievement gap.

Lucaci said that over the years, many Boards have discussed it, but specifically asked what this Board would do to address it. 

Chang said that although he would “leave that vision” to the person coming in to replace him, the District has worked toward “remediation” of the gap. “We look at it through a deep lens to see what works to lead to success for those students,’ he said. 

Dr. Livingston Adams said that the District needs to look at “new and innovative ways of doing things.” She said that incremental steps are fine, but that only a “transformational vision” will truly “get things done.”

Butler said that this discussion was first brought to the Board back in 2000, when he served as a Board Member. “In 2020, the problem is still with us,” he said. He said that the District needs to “dedicate resources” to eliminating the achievement gap.

“The Board of Education needs to take another look at the issue,” he said.