WEST ORANGE, NJ — Although the preliminary budget for the 2020-21 school year was approved at the previous West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) meeting on March 19, the public was invited to provide comments on the current state of the budget at the district’s first virtual meeting held on Monday.
West Orange Superintendent of Schools Dr. J. Scott Cascone noted that this year's presentation of the preliminary budget intentionally had significantly less detail compared to presentations from previous years.
Cascone explained that because the district is currently facing "dynamic times," some budget items that the district originally intended to cut are now being deliberated further.
As an example, the superintendent shared that he and Business Administrator John Calavano recently discovered the district could save approximately $400,000 by shifting its benefits plan to Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield.
"Getting news like that has implications in terms of cuts, which we originally thought we might have to make," said Cascone. "So, we have gone back to deliberations in terms of the things we might be able to do."
Cascone added that the preliminary budget as originally presented involves cutting 35 positions from all different areas.
"We're really trying to be as mindful as possible of that and walking a line for both fiscal responsibility to the taxpayers as well as being understanding and sensitive to the needs of our fantastic employees," he said.
As the superintendent and the board continue their internal discussions, the superintendent announced plans for an upcoming public work session. He concluded that the district should be able to present an updated form of the budget during the April 20 meeting.
During public comment, West Orange resident Adam Kraemer was critical of the superintendent's claim of exercising "fiscal responsibility."
"Looking at the numbers, inflation was low, enrollment was the same, state aid grew substantially, and the tax levy went up more than two percent," he said. "I just don't see a math that says that that's fiscal responsibility."
He added that West Orange Public Schools is not only spending more than almost any other district per pupil, but also spending more than most suburban districts in Essex Country.
"We have one of the highest tax levies and biggest burdens in just about anywhere, and you're raising taxes again—and you're doing it at a time when the economy is a mess," he said. "Businesses are shut down […] we have a lot of people out of work wondering if they're going to make a mortgage [payment], they don't want a tax payment. We have landlords that aren't collecting from tenants, […] and you're raising the tax bill? I just think that's a huge mistake."
Kraemer implored the board and the superintendent to "go back to the drawing board" to prioritize what is critical for the district to function.
"Schools have to be funded, but you don't need $171 million approximately for less than 7,000 students," he said. "If you need that much money, you're just spending, you're not budgeting and it's just really wrong under any time to do this, but especially in this time, during the midst of a pandemic with huge economic implications."
In response, Cascone elaborated on some points he made at the previous board meeting, including the fact that all school districts state-wide are being faced with an "immediate challenge" when developing a budget.
"Before we've even begun to talk about staff or materials or programs or anything of this nature, we immediately talk about what is going to be the increased expense to support health benefits […] and then what is the percentage increase that is necessary to support the increases in pay as specified under the collective bargaining agreements," he said. "Right off the bat, that led to approximately an $8-million increase in our overall budget."
Cascone explained that hitting the 2-percent cap gave the district approximately $2.5 million. Even after receiving an additional $2.5 million in state aid, Cascone said the district was still with a deficit of approximately $2.5 million that needed to be found within the budget.
“If we were to have not gone up to cap, then that would have been an additional $2.5 million that needed to be found,” he said. “If we use no bank cap, then we would [need] between five and six million dollars.”
In an effort to find cost savings, the superintendent said he and board have been looking at “a number of creative approaches.” These include decreasing custodial and security over time, cutting programs or holding off on adopting programs until the following school year, which he said would result in a significant decrease in the overall operating budget.
Although he agreed that the district needs to start to prioritize the funding of programs that are necessary to its core mission, Cascone said he and the board do not believe that the school community needs to be drastically changed at this time in order to achieve that goal.
“This was a budget that involves significant cuts,” he said. “But, at the same time, it’s a budget that funds a set of programs that we think are fair and in the best interest of the children that the school district serves.”
Prior to the next meeting, Cascone said he and the board will work hard to present a final budget that is “as sensible as possible” and will continue to “look for ways to generate additional revenue.”
For updates on the next WOBOE meeting, which will be held virtually on April 20 at 5:30 p.m., visit woboe.org.