It'll be a few months before the Millburn Board of Education presents a proposed budget, but the board started discussions Tuesday night about the work needed to be done before then.
The board had a wide-ranging discussion on school topics during a "retreat" at the end of its business agenda Tuesday night. Most often board members said the issues needed to be studied before opinions could be formed and decisions made. The topics included user fees for extra curricular activities, charging for busing and holding public meetings through the budget process.
On user fees, board Vice President Jeff Waters, also finance committee chairman, said he doesn't like them, but he sees they may be a necessary evil. He said there are three reasons he doesn't like them—they are an expected part of the education program, it's hard economic times and parents already are paying through fund-raising and booster clubs.
On the economic circumstances, Waters said most often school districts will allow relief if a student is in the free or reduced lunch program. But there are a lot of families who are in tough times and don't fall in that category, he said.
"They may be on the bubble and a kid may not try something they otherwise would try," he said.
Eric Siegel, a board member, said the board doesn't know how high the rates would be or how much could be earned through charging for the activities. Until that is determined, he said, he can't discuss if they should be implemented.
Debra Fox, a board member, said she was open to user fees too. Many students find the extra activities a place where they can be comfortable at school. "I'd rather charge a fee than lose the activity," she said.
Changing the way the district approaches busing may be more difficult, though. Sam Levy, a board member, said the current policy was set by a referendum, and it's unclear if the board has the authority to change it without another referendum.
The current policy allows busing for students who are at least one mile away from the elementary school, 1.5 miles from the middle school or two miles from the high school. The district also allows courtesy busing to some families, including those who live on what has been deemed a "hazardous route."
Additionally, Levy said, the savings by eliminating courtesy busing may not be that much, which had been the conclusion of previous school district administrators. The district will still need to provide busing to students who live on hazardous routes, he said. "I'm not sure the savings could be realized," he said.
Plus the change in policy could create more traffic at the schools, which would require more security personnel in the mornings and afternoons. Siegel said user fees for busing could decrease the amount of traffic at the schools and should be examined.
But Levy said it could take time for school officials to examine the busing issues and reach conclusions and predicted it could take at least a year. "I can't see it being done by the end of the school year," he said. "It's a major task."
Lise Chapman, a board member, said it's still an issue school officials should study because the budget issues won't go away any time soon. It may be something to take up during the 2012-13 budget process, she said.
Waters also warned the board should not be looking at just increasing revenue and should also look at costs. The costs need to come down too, he said. "I would love it if it was just a revenue issue," he said. "We need to lower our cost structure."
Once the costs have come down, he said, the growth in revenue and expenses need to be equal. If they are not, it will open another gap.
The board also discussed adding non-formal budget meetings or opening the committee meetings to the public.
Levy said while he was board president he endorsed the idea twice, and it was rejected both times. He likes the idea because it not only would it gather information from the public, but it would educate people on the budget.
Waters said he was in favor of any way to connect with residents about the budget. "It's the most important thing we do," he said of the board's work on the budget.
Rona Wenik, a board member and high school liaison committee chairman, said high school students are concerned about the budget, and she wants to know what they and parents value the most. "We could learn a lot," she said. "People may have ideas. It's a great idea to hear as much as we can."
But Scott Kamber, a board member, said he didn't think a lot of people would come to the budget meeting, citing how the same 10 people come to board meetings. He suggested having a half hour before regular board meetings for budget discussions for the public.