EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — With work underway on a budget proposal for the 2018-19 school year, school officials hope a new administration in Trenton will mean more state money flowing into the school district.
School officials won’t know what state aid they have to work with until after Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his first budget address, set for March 13. Two days later, at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 15 at the Alder Avenue School, the district is set to hold one of several planned budget workshops.
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“So that evening will be a big reveal,” Chandra Anaya, the school district’s business administrator, said in an interview Tuesday.
The district hopes to see an increase of millions of dollars in the amount of state money coming into the district. Officials say Trenton has been underfunding the district for years, based on the state’s own per-pupil funding formula.
“We should be getting $67 million. We get $40 million,” Anaya said.
At this point, the district expects to spend $128.96 million next year, with a projected increase to the school tax rate of 2.5 cents. That would mean a school tax rate a fraction of a penny over $2.04 per $100 of assessed property value.
On a house assessed at $208,000, the average assessment last year, that works out to $4,243 in taxes to support the school district, in addition to municipal and county taxes.
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But that assumes an increase of $3.57 million in state aid, which is by no means guaranteed. And the proposed tax rate increase is already at the state-imposed limit of 2 percent a year. If the state aid falls short, the district could face cuts.
“It’s programs and people. That’s exactly what will happen,” Anaya said.
“We really don’t want to alarm people,” school Superintendent Kim Gruccio said.
Gruccio wants to rally parents and others in the community to push for increased state aid, and said district officials will be sharpening their pencils as well.
But the biggest numbers in the budget are items like health benefits and salaries, where there is little room to cut back without changes to the school program.
“We’ve been doing more with less. I think we’re getting to the point where we’re going to have to do less with less,” Gruccio said.
It’s too early to talk about what that could look like for the coming school year, she said, noting that a lot may happen before the state numbers are released.
At a Saturday morning meeting held Jan. 27, Gruccio filled the Board of Education and members of the public in on the current budget situation, the first of several budget workshops planned for this year.
“We told the public where we are right now,” Gruccio said.
About 40 people attended the meeting, she said. She also discussed student achievements. Gruccio said she wants the district’s educational goals to guide the budget process.
The school board’s next budget meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27, also at the Alder Avenue School, 25 Alder Ave.
In addition to the big reveal meeting March 15, there is another budget workshop set for March 27, and the district has to submit its budget to the Atlantic County office of the Department of Education in April. Anaya said she’ll want as much time to work with the numbers as possible.
“We’ll probably go right down to the wire,” she said.
According to Anaya, $40.68 million in state aid to the district would be considered flat compared to previous years. Last year the district amended its budget when that number increased by about $1.5 million, for a total of $42.13 million.
In July of last year, the school board unanimously decided to use half that increase to reduce the school tax rate and to put the other half toward future budgets, according to a news report from the time.
According to Gruccio, over the years, the state has shorted the district more than $300 million, by failing to adhere to the state aid formula based on the number of students. The state aid is based on 6,000 students, and there are about 7,400 in the district, she said. At its most populated, the district was closer to 8,000 students.
“We had 2,000 more kids roaming these hallways, and we didn’t get funding for it,” she said.
According to posted budget documents, the district spends about $14,900 per student a year.