WEST ORANGE, NJ — As the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) continues to work on its 2020-2021 budget in order to save money while maintaining certain positions that the district originally expected to cut from the budget, Superintendent of Schools Dr. J. Scott Cascone recently addressed a handful of updates.

Regarding the status of the upcoming referendum, Cascone explained that architects from EI Associates provided optimistic feedback on the recent facilities evaluation and reported last week that there are no projects that are in “emergent or critical need.”

“Our buildings are by and large in pretty good shape,” said Cascone. “What this means is that if and when we do decide to go out for a referendum, it would be a much smaller referendum than the one we originally proposed ($50 million).”

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According to Cascone, the upcoming referendum will cover the most urgent HVAC needs, which would have been cost-prohibitive to fund using the district’s annual operating budget and other big-ticket items identified in the facilities evaluation. Some of those items included the retaining wall at Washington Elementary School and an updated preschool facility.

The superintendent stated that although the upcoming referendum will be a “more modest, fiscally responsible referendum,” the district will need to schedule a work session later this spring in order to continue reviewing the facilities assessment.

During public comment, West Orange resident Adam Kraemer followed up on comments made by the superintendent at a previous WOBOE meeting, where Kraemer expressed concerns about the “fiscal management of the schools” as it relates to the “increase in salaries and increase in health care.”

Kraemer explained that the superintendent’s response was “problematic” because the WOBOE and the West Orange Education Association (WOEA) last voted on health care and employee contracts in 2018. At that time, Kraemer said he and three former board members claimed that the contract “would become economically unsustainable.”

“This is not to criticize the teachers or staff,” he said. “The problem is you can’t compensate school employees and public employees more than the tax base can sustain; and we’ve been doing that, and that’s the underlying problem.”

Stating that the community “can only support what the community can support,” Board President Ken Alper said the community also needs to “have high-quality schools, which [the district does] with a breadth and depth of programming that makes West Orange an attractive destination for people.”

“In theory, the board could produce a zero-percent increase budget, which still, due to the way budgets work, would still be [a] $100-and-change increase year over year,” said Alper. “But it would be at the cost of [approximately] 85 jobs and would cause such damage to the system that now you’re still paying [$14,500] in taxes, and then now you have a school system that’s been seriously damaged…

“At that point, you start to go into a spiral as a town that I don’t think is anywhere we could responsibly put ourselves.”

The WOBOE will hold a public-policy workshop virtually on Monday, April 27 at 5:30 p.m., and the next regular public meeting is scheduled for May 4 at 7:30 p.m.