The Millburn Township Schools Board of Education finalized the budget in front of a packed house Monday night, highlighting the big expenditures and low tax rate increase.
The big costs in next year’s ($85 million including debt service) come in the form of improving infrastructure – both in technology and in facilities with refurbishing the middle school auditorium and the high school bleachers.
Some $1.4 million was transferred from the capital reserves to pay for auditorium project and the bleachers. on improving the technological infrasturture to make sure that teachers and students can get the most out of the technology they have and can "move into the 21st Century."
The budget requires a tax rate of 0.65 percent, which is a little less than half of the 2011-12 tax levy increase of 1.35 percent, both of which were below the state-mandated cap of 2 percent. The rate represents a tax increase of approximately $103 on a home in Millburn-Short Hills assessed at $1 million.
Keeping the tax increase that low works well for this year, all agree, but it could mean cuts in programs or other areas in future years because, presuming that state aid stays flat, but salaries and benefits increase, the school district will have difficulty replenishing its capital reserve account every year and in future years, Superintendent James Crisfield said.
Under those circumstances, he said, by 2013-2014, the school board may be faced with cutting spending by $798,000.
While some in the audience felt the school board should not be raising taxes at all because the district still has a surplus account of $2 million, others said they were worried that by raising the taxes by so little, educational programs will suffer later.
School Board member Jeff Waters said there was disagreement on the board over tax rate and whether it should be as low as it is or if it should be higher while remaining under the 2 percent cap.
“There are just vague generalizations about what’s going to happen next year,” he said. “We’re hearing about cutting administrative costs, but I’m still waiting to hear where these administration costs saving are going to be.”
Lise Chapman, who heads the board’s budget and finance committee, said this was the first year of zero-based budgeting and in the next years’ budgets they will be able to look at structural reform as well as at the strategic plan to help determine the budget and the tax rate.
The budget will now go on to the state, without voter approval because the school board voted earlier this year to move the school board election to , which eliminated the public vote on the budget.
In addition to the budget discussion, the board also heard an update on the new elementary school world language curriculum that uses an educational Rosetta Stone program.
Dr. Christine Burton showed a video of students using and sharing what they like about it – a video that was made three weeks into the program.
It is a program that saves money, because they are no longer paying for four language teachers, and also lets students work at their own pace while, administrators feel, better preparing them for Middle School world language classes.
“This is an example of doing more with less,” Waters said. “We are constantly hearing negativity that we are not doing that and here we are doing it. …We have questioned the (elementary) foreign language for years. I want to thank Dr. Crisfield and Dr. Burton -- this is vision with execution. Vision without execution doesn’t mean anything.”
Chapman said he likes how Rosetta Stone gives control to the students. “They feel good because they’re meeting the challenge and moving forward,” she said.
Burton said they chose Rosetta stone because of its ease of use, how it integrates into the middle and high school programs and how teachers not certified in foreign language can administer it.
One parent was concerned that something can be lost in translation when a foreign language is taught by computer program rather than a teacher who can connect with the student on a more personal level. Some of the teachers attending the meeting applauded at that.
Parents at Monday’s meeting also the board to come to an agreement with the teacher’s union, putting an end to the which some said was beginning to affect their children and is making it awkward at school between teachers and parents.
It has the union and the district began negotiations and still have not , after the district unilaterally changed the health insurance – something the union says is supposed to be done only in collective bargaining.
Board Member Sam Levy said both sides are continuing to negotiate in good faith and hope to reach an agreement soon.