EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – More than $6.6 million in staffing, stipend and other cuts are needed to bring the 2017-2018 Egg Harbor Township School District budget in line with the state-mandated spending cap, administrators said at the Board of Education's annual budget workshop Saturday, Feb. 11.
The draft budget contains no new programming or staffing requests, and all freshman sports and other Egg Harbor Township High School activities with "low participation" have already been cut for the upcoming school year, yet, Interim Superintendent Fred Nickles said much more culling is needed to bring the budget to within the 2 percent cap on budget increases imposed by the state.
“Rumors have been out and about, but many of them not true,” Nickles said. “The fact of the matter is that due to a number of circumstances, we fell into a $6.6 million deficit. That means after the budget was proposed and submitted by all of the departments, we need to cut $6.6 million.”
The $124 million budget – which is a work in progress that must be finalized by the school board later this spring – was introduced at the public workshop, which attracted a standing-room-only crowd.
Even with the elimination of dozens of teaching and other positions, the proposed budget would raise the school tax rate by 6 cents to $2.01 per $100 of assessed property value. The projected rate would raise the school tax bill of the owner of the average township home assessed at $208,000 by $128 per year, to $4,180.
The proposed budget would cut 47 positions – 28 of which would be realized by not filling current openings and vacancies created by retirements and resignations. The actual number of employees who would be impacted is 19, according to Nickles, who told the crowd that Saturday was first time the board received his proposed cuts and that none of the decisions were finalized yet.
Slated for cutting are one each of the following: art teacher, business teacher, English language learner teacher, English teacher, French teacher, guidance counselor, math teacher and physical education teacher. Also proposed to be cut are two assistant principals, three elementary teachers, six reading coaches, two reading specialists, three special education teachers, two part-time occupational therapists, 16 paraprofessionals and five custodians.
Board Solicitor Amy Houck Elco said some of the positions that could be cut involve tenured teachers, who have the right under state law to be provided with another job for which they are certified and tenured. If a tenured teacher’s position is removed through a “reduction in force” decision, the teacher can be moved to another position for which they are qualified. However, this change could push another teacher out of a position.
“What often happens is a domino effect. Another teacher is then displaced,” she explained. Teachers whose positions are eliminated who are not tenured in a previous role would be put on a seniority list and considered first for other positions as they come available.
Nickles said the educational audit that took place earlier in the year as part of an exploration into whether full-day kindergarten could be implemented revealed that some paraprofessionals have openings for additional students in their schedules, which would allow the district to eliminate the other positions.
“We would not be changing any of the instructional programs. We would not be changing any of the paras who are currently employed,” he said. “We would not be changing any of the health benefits or salaries of anyone who is employed. That remains consistent and constant.”
Business Administrator and Board Secretary Chandra Anaya cited some of the factors which contributed to increased spending during her report at the workshop: special education tuition and transportation costs increased by $1,658,469; the district’s contribution to health care increased by $1,462,853; the 2016 settlement with the Egg Harbor Township Education Association increased salaries by $2,555,370; tuition for township residents who attend charter schools increased by $255,894; and the district experienced a reduction in its grant funding by $166,245. She said total revenues from the state are flat again from year to year at $40,684,851.
Board member Pete Castellano, who chairs the budget committee and has recently testified twice with other district representatives at state hearings on school funding issues while the district continues to push for the state aid to which is entitled under the state’s own funding formula, said this year is a bleak one.
“This budget looks nothing short of a disaster for us,” he said. “And we use our money wisely. We are spending $8 million below adequacy, which is what the state says we should spend per student and still be financially responsible.”
For years, the state has not fully funded its own formula for allocating state aid, which calls for Egg Harbor Township School District to receive $67 million per year, which is about $27 million short of full funding. In 2000, state aid accounted for 60 percent of revenue for the district. State aid is about 35 percent of the current budget.
Director of special education Carol Cannerelli said the changes made to special education staffing were appropriate to keep the focus on student needs.
“Ultimately the supervisors and I feel very comfortable with the budget as it stands because we feel we are doing what our mission was, to continue to give students the programs and services they need and we feel like we accomplished this in a way that does not hurt kids at all,” she said.
The administration expects to realize savings in some special education-related tuition by bringing some students back from out-of-district placement and adjusting the programming to keep others from being placed elsewhere. Savings are also expected through reallocating money to cover substitute teacher costs, reducing trash collection costs, leasing rather than buying computer equipment and cutting eight webmaster stipends as it transitions to a new website.
Nickles said there are two proposals at the state level being considered that each could bring additional state aid to the district. He called the upcoming school year budget a “one-year horrendous hit.”
“No one wants to cut anything. And as a one-year interim superintendent, the easiest thing to do by June 30 is to not lay anyone off, just, you know, get through this year, keep the ship sailing," he said. "But those aren’t the cards I’ve been dealt. We have to make these tough decisions just to get through the next year and the years to come.”
Additional budget meetings are scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesdays, Feb. 21 and March 7.