Updated 8 p.m. 3/2/2012
The Millburn Board of Education passed a preliminary 2012-2013 budget of $78.9 million with a 0.65 percent tax rate that represents the lowest tax increase in memory.
“To put it in perspective, 0.65 percent is half of last year’s rate of 1.35 percent and represents the lowest tax rate in Millburn’s recent or even past history,” said the board's finance committee chairperson Lise Chapman. “We have come down 1.35 percent from the Administration’s 2 percent tax rate proposed beginning with the initial budget presentation on Jan. 9.”
Chapman said the 0.65 percent tax rate also represents a compromise between what the Administration wanted and those who wanted no tax increase at all.
"This process is an art not a science. It is extremely complex with needs from different stakeholders – students, faculty, school administration, elected BOE members, and equally important the tax payers who pay 93 percent of the general fund to operate this District," she said. "The 0.65 percent tax levy was reached as a compromise, which is how a committee needs to work."
Superintendent James Crisfield had presented an presuming a 2 percent tax increase while waiting to find out what kind of state aid the school district was going to receive.
The aid by $353,000 over last year’s amount, for a total of $1.8 million. The $353,000 combined with $764,000 the state gave the district last July gave the district the buffered it needed to bring the tax rate down this year, Chapman said.
“Just because we received more money doesn’t mean we need to spend it all…we on the committee wanted to give some of this additional state aid back to the taxpayers while making sure we are prepared for the future,” Chapman said. ""Instead of 2 percent, we started at 1 percent and worked our way down," Chapman said.
This budget represents major spending increases in $1.9 million in technology spending, $2.5 million in special education, $4.1 million in buildings and grounds, and $2.6 million for capital projects, with proceeds coming from both general funds and capital reserves. It includes $2.3 million in carryover surplus and $2 million in excess surplus "as the Administration continues to manage it to be stabilized. Any extra money at the end of the year can go into capital reserves as done this current year," Chapman said.
“In a nutshell, this is the year for catch up in our technology and upgrading of our facilities and educational programs,” Chapman said.
Mark Zucker, who is on the finance committee and heads the negotiations with the teachers' union, said that while the district has not finalized an agreement with the teachers, the teachers have made some concessions that allow the board to keep the tax rate lower.
on Monday asked the Board of Education to overturn its earlier vote to move school elections to November, saying the board has some ethical problems with moving the election because three of the board members are up for re-election.
Jeff Diecidue and Josh Scharf, both members of the group, on Monday asked the board to rescind their vote from two weeks ago and put the question to a public vote in April.
Scharf said the board did not follow its own policies to keep the public informed and the board voted on the change before the public had sufficient notice or chance to provide input.
If the board members did not want to put it to a referendum, Diecidue said on Thursday, they should rescind the vote and seek an advisory opinion from the state ethics commission.
“We are not making argument that any board members have acted inappropriately, but by definition the statute conflicts with the ‘conflict of interest’ rules and there is a conflict,” he said. “I’m asking the board to seek a determination on it…”
They also suggested on Mondaythat if the board refused to do that, WeLoveMillburn might file an ethics violation charge against the Board of Ed.
Board member Jean Pasternak tried to make a motion to rescind the vote, but there was no place on the agenda for any old or new business, so she will have to wait until the next regular school board meeting. In the end, she voted against the preliminary budget, which passed 8-1, based on the fact that voters want property tax relief and she believes there are ways to more efficiently spend taxpayers' money.
"I am more than convinced that our teachers, administrators and staff have the ability and drive to continue to keep our schools excellent and our student performing to the best of their abilities with the superior education they receive in our school district," she said. "And I am certain that they can do this
without our board having to raise taxes on our community."
On Thursday, Diecidue commended the board on holding the tax rate to less than 1 percent and thanked Crisfield for projecting the budgets out for the next couple of years.
“That’s not too bad. You guys did a good job on that,” Diecidue said. “It’s not as bad as I thought it was going to be.”
Two other residents talked at length about not trying to maintain the status quo in Millburn but trying to improve the district to keep up with the very top schools in the country.
"The problem is that continuation of the status quo is not really an option. You know it," said Dave Graziano, emphasizing that salaries and benefits costs are increasing faster than the 2 percent costs and that programs will be cut every year without some structural changes.
"...What we're doing year after year in the budget process is a recipe for disaster for this district long-term," he said.
Ralph Inglese followed up those remarks saying that parents are supplementing school with tutors because they are trying to fill a gap. While the high school is touted as among the best in the country, the latest US News & World report ranking placed it at 120, when it used to be the top 100.
"It's up to you, the board, to say 'We've had enough.' Stop being the great defender of the status quo," Inglese said. "It starts by publicaly acknowledging that there is a problem - that we should be doing more, and that we can do more. Nothing is going to change until the board makes it a priority and takes rapid steps to address the continuing deterioration."