WEST ORANGE, NJ — The average homeowner in West Orange will see a tax increase of approximately $276.36 annually (or $23.03 monthly) according to the 2020-2021 school budget adopted unanimously during this week’s West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE)
The final budget (totaling $171,399,914) represents a 2.39-percent increase to the average home assessed at $338,121 and was adopted with the hope that the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) will shed some light on how the pandemic will affect federal and state funding in the coming months.
Due to the “loss of revenues in the state from sales tax” and the “increased funds to assist with the ongoing crisis on a number of different levels,” West Orange Superintendent of Schools Dr. J. Scott Cascone said that the “coffers of the state are not going to be what they would have expected” and that this could potentially impact the district’s state aid for the year.
Despite expecting federal aid, Cascone added that is going to be difficult to predict whether that aid will be able to offset the state’s losses, which in turn means that the district will also need to find a way to make up its own losses in revenue due to a potentially significant decrease from the $17.8 million that was expected in state aid.
“What that means is if we lose state aid, we actually have less local money with which to offset that loss in state aid,” said Cascone, adding that this would result in “more draconian and drastic cuts” between now and September.
In explanation of the $10.15 that has been added to the initially proposed monthly increase to the average West Orange homeowner, Business Administrator John Calavano noted that the tax levy increased by 2.79 percent ($400,000) in banked cap. With a $423,290 decrease in the debt service fund, however, Calavano reiterated that the total tax levy increased by 2.39 percent from the previous school year.
As discussed during the preliminary budget meeting, the board administration decided to not excessively tap into the approximately $4.7 million reserve due to the negative impact it would have on West Orange taxpayers.
Cascone reiterated that although the district will be entering “uncharted financial waters” where it could see massive losses in state aid and that using the money would “unquestionably poise and set [the district] up to be able to withstand some of the significant cuts which may be coming down the pike,” the board ultimately decided against using the banked cap “in absolute deference to the municipal taxpayer” with fiscal responsibility in mind.
With fiscal responsibility being touted as a top priority, Cascone noted that the budget supports additional professional learning opportunities for teachers K-12 in diversity, equity and access as well as academic intervention for grades 7 and 8.
Also included in the budget are four additional special education teachers, nine special education paraprofessionals, two academic support teachers for grades 7 and 8, one French teacher and one floating nurse who will based at West Orange High School (WOHS).
Cascone emphasized that adding an extra nurse will be helpful during district events as well as at the high school, where the two current nurses are each responsible for approximately 1,000 students.
Additionally, although the budget only covers the replacement of obsolete inventory for the upcoming school year, Cascone noted that the West Orange district is ahead of the curve when it comes to ensuring that all students have access to technology.
“We’re seeing the merits and the value of having adequate and substantial technology resources,” he said. “If it weren’t for the fact that this school district had the foresight to invest consistently in technology, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing right now.”
Despite recently facing several challenges with assisting parents and students with their technology at home, Cascone pointed out that the district is not currently lacking in technology or Internet access.
As part of the adopted budget, a total of $687,000 will be spent on leasing 2,800 Chromebooks for students, 125 laptops for teachers and 60 desktops for media centers and administrative offices.
In terms of transportation, Calavano mentioned that $58,000 has been allotted to upgrading all bus radios to digital as well as leasing one additional bus and two additional vans for district use.
According to Calavano, the budget will also help to complete a variety of capital and maintenance projects, including upgrading the lighting system at Liberty Middle School and replacing the retaining wall at Hazel Elementary School.
After being awarded the COPS Grant last year, the superintendent announced that the district is now in the process of applying for a Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act Grant in the amount of $375,295 as well.
Explaining some of the reductions from this year’s budget, Cascone said that a total of 25 full-time positions have been cut from the district, including 15 due to staffing efficiencies and 10 due to reductions in classroom enrollment. He noted that the district had initially proposed a reduction of 35 positions and that the positions being cut are from all different areas.
Calavano also announced that the district has opted to maintain its healthcare plan with Aetna, as this will be the least disruptive to current staff. Although Horizon offered a plan with a 0.4-percent decrease overall, Calavano explained that it also included a 7-percent increase in prescription rates.
He also stated that the cost for School Employees’ Health Benefit Program (SEHBP) coverage has increased by 4.1-percent compared to Aetna’s 1-percent increase.
During public comment, West Orange resident Adam Kraemer was adamant about the need for the board to go back to the drawing board to make more cuts for the sake of a more sustainable budget. After the budget was approved, Kraemer urged the board and superintendent to “broaden [their] perspective between now and the next school year and to “spend some time with business owners who are really struggling.”
“Make a point to spend some time with people who are on the bubble of having their house foreclosed,” he said. “There are a number of them, and that number will grow in this town. Make a point to meet some people who are near retirement age […] wondering if they can stay in their homes in retirement.
“Get their perspective just as much as you get the perspective of the parents, students [and] school employees. You’ll certainly hear from me between now and spring of 2021. I wish you the best of luck running these schools and may you do well in what I’m sure will be a challenging economic situation.”
Click HERE for a variety of resources related to the 2020-21 budget, including a School Tax Calculator to help determine household contributions.
In other news, Cascone also touched upon Gov. Phil Murphy’s decision to shutter school facilities for in-person learning for the remainder of the academic year. He noted that although the decision was not unexpected, it did not make the official announcement “any easier for students,” and specifically for graduating students or spring athletes.
“Just remaining sensitive and understanding to that, [I want to] let all these young ladies and gentlemen out there know that I’m thinking of them and I understand that it’s a tough one for you, but also that your lives are long and you have many adventures and wonderful things to experience moving forward,” he said.
Cascone added that closing school facilities has simplified the thought process of the district, which previously had to focus on figuring out how to maintain district operations in a virtual environment while also looking at what reopening school would look like.
“I’m thankful for that because it’s going to give us additional time to think through how we could open schools in September,” he said. “And it’s also going to give time for medicine and science to catch up, and hopefully we will have some clear guidelines sooner rather than later as to what we would need to do in order to open our school safely in September…
“Now we can really focus exclusively on making sure that the rest of this year unfolds in the highest quality manner possible for our students and our families.”
CLICK HERE to read more from the superintendent on the decision to close schools for in-person learning for the remainder of the academic year.
The next WOBOE meeting will be held virtually on May 13 at 5:30 p.m.