A public hearing for the school spending plan is set for April 30.

WESTFIELD, NJ – The Board of Education has introduced a spending plan that hikes the tax levy by 2.8 percent using permitted exceptions to the state’s levy cap and funding new hires for the school district, including a coordinator of health and wellness.

The $108.46 million budget for the 2019-20 academic year marks an increase of approximately $3 million over last year’s spending plan, School Business Administrator Dana Sullivan told the school board on Tuesday.

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What’s it going to cost the taxpayer?

About $101 million of the budget will be funded through the local tax levy. The budget proposes a 2.8 percent tax levy increase, amounting to an average increase of $275 in school taxes for the owner of the home assessed at the typical value, school officials said.

With that increase, the average Westfield homeowner will pay $10,202.97 in school taxes this year, as compared to the $9,927.97, which state data show the typical homeowner paid in 2018 based on the then school tax rate of $5.457 per $100 of assessed valuation on the 2018 average home assessed at $181,931.

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While the state usually caps the yearly tax levy increase at 2 percent, Sullivan said, the district applied for two waivers to go above that cap. The waivers are for health insurance costs and the use of banked cap, she said.

Districts may request to use its allowable increases in the tax levy that were unused or “banked” within the last three years, Sullivan said. The district elected to use their remaining banked cap in this year’s budget, Sullivan said.

What is Westfield getting from the state?

The district is expected to receive about $5.2 million in state aid, which is an increase of about $400,000 over last year, Sullivan said. This aid figure will most likely remain the same, she said, but the state may modify it if needed once the state budget is balanced later this year.

The state has established a formula to calculate aid for school districts, but as is the case for districts throughout New Jersey, this formula is not completely funded, Sullivan noted.

Sullivan said that the Westfield Public School District was entitled to roughly $7.3 million in state aid last year but only received roughly $4.8 million because the formula was not fully funded.

“We’re hoping that the state will continue to fund the formula so that Westfield gets somewhat of its fair share because this is pretty startling,” Sullivan said.

Why is the budget increasing?

The district expects increases of $1.4 million in existing salaries and $1.6 million in health insurance costs.

Budget increases will also fund salaries for new employees. The district plans to hire a new health and wellness coordinator, two new elementary school teachers and increase part-time hours for one existing elementary school teacher, due to increased enrollment.

What’s being done to contain costs?

At last month’s budget presentation, Sullivan discussed several ways the district is containing costs, including self-insured medical and prescription plans and coordinated transportation for students placed out-of-district.

When’s the public hearing?

The board introduced the budget by a unanimous vote, setting a public hearing and its anticipated final adoption for Tuesday, April 30, at 7:30 p.m.

“It’s a very fiscally responsible budget, and I know there’s a lot of work that goes into it,” said Board President Peggy Oster. “We really appreciate all that you guys do.”

The budget will be submitted to the county prior to the March 20 deadline. Links to the budget presentation and prior years' budgets can be found on the district website.

State funding concerns

Liz Mulholland, a Westfield resident, raised concerns about state education funding to the board during her public comments.

Mulholland said the state has been increasing private school funding over the last decade, increases which have taken money away from public schools.

“On the one hand, we’re saying we can’t afford to fund our public schools, but we’re doubling aid that we’re sending to private schools,” Mulholland said, referencing a doubling in aid for private schools’ security and technology departments over the last year. “Obviously not a sustainable issue.”

Mulholland said approximately $110 million in state aid goes to private schools.

In 2018, New Jersey voters approved a ballot referendum allowing the state to issue $500,000 in bonds to increase aid to educational institutions.

“The money from the sale of the bonds would be used to provide grants to schools, school districts, county vocational school districts and county colleges,” the question read in part. “Money from the grants would be used to build, equip and expand facilities to increase career and technical education program capacity. Funds would also be used for school security upgrades and school district water infrastructure improvement projects.”

Mulholland voiced her concerns about this referendum, which she said is anticipated to increase the number of Vocational-Technical schools in the state.

Though the state would fund the construction of the schools themselves, Mulholland said, “the local districts and the counties will be the entities that are funding the actual teachers and everything inside the school, which is going to put further pressure down the line.”