School board passes preliminary budget; state aid debate goes on

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EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – The Egg Harbor Township Board of Education passed a preliminary budget of $111,604,254 at a special meeting Thursday, March 1 and sent it to the county for approval as well.

The budget will return to the board and face a public hearing and final vote on March 26.

The measure passed 7-1, with board member Mark Deebold casting the sole dissenting vote. The ninth member of the board, James Kutch, resigned in late February, and his seat has not yet been filled.

Although the board still seemed somewhat divided on how to utilize the additional state aid it received last month, it had to stick to a deadline of Monday, March 5 for submission to the county. Changes can still be made to decrease the budget or reallocate money, but the budget cannot be increased further, Business Administrator and Board Secretary Kateryna Bechtel said.

The budget submitted is within the state’s 2 percent tax levy increase cap, with local taxes totaling $73 million. By being under the cap, the board no longer has to send the budget to a public vote.

State aid figures released by Gov. Chris Christie’s administration provided the Egg Harbor Township with a $2 million aid increase.

For the 2011-2012 school year, the district received $37,531,686 in state aid. The figure for 2012-2013 is $39,807,390, an increase of 6.1 percent.

This figure was in addition to about $1.7 million in aid given during the 2011-2012 school year that the board deferred into this budget year as a way to buffer unanticipated cuts to funding.

One of the topics still under debate among the board members is what to do with that deferred amount. They can chose to use it as tax relief, use it in the budget this year, or defer for one more year.

Saying while he knows the district is still under “great financial pressure,” board member Deebold said he would like to see the $1.7 million utilized as tax relief.

Board member Neil Anderson said he felt comfortable using the state aid to support the programs and staffing requested by the administration and said the state’s funding formula for schools is never a solid promise.

“We don’t know if they can sustain $2 million,” he said, noting he felt the administration did a good job of prioritizing budget requests made by the schools. “I can live with this list presented to us tonight.”

Board member Barbara Szilagyi said she had a hard time holding onto the money when they also received the additional state aid this year.

“We’re saving for a rainy day when our residents are already having a rainy day,” she said. “I feel very conflicted.”

Board member Thor Himley introduced a “new concept” that would allow the board to “smooth out” the tax levy by using the $1.7 million as relief this year. He said his plan would buffer the tax rate from pending increases in future years.

Some of staffing additions included in the budget include a middle school French teacher, new writing coaches to be used throughout the district to improve students’ language arts scores on standardized testing, and a vice principal at the high school.

Other items in the budget are the continuation of a varsity bowling team at the high school, and support of middle school social studies curriculum.

“I think we’ve been prudent in how we budget and how we forecast,” board member John “Jack” Haines said.

Superintendent Scott McCartney said the district also has to prepare for new state-mandated programs on the horizon, including a financial literacy program that will require all students beginning with the incoming freshman class to complete 2.5 credits in the subject by the time they graduate, and the implementation of the new accountability system that was introduced when New Jersey received a waiver from No Child Left Behind benchmark requirements.

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