BRICK – The Board of Education adopted the 2020-2021 school year budget during the most recent public hearing, which was virtual due to the ongoing public health crisis.
The $156,405,300 “no frills” budget had some very constraining parameters, said the new Superintendent of Schools Thomas Farrell. “We are seeing the negative effect of the S-2 funding cliff on our district,” he said.
The superintendent was referring to a NJ Senate bill that includes cuts of over $20 million in state aid funding to Brick schools over a seven year period.
The cost per pupil in Brick totals $14,991, while the state average is $16,350 per pupil, said business administrator James Edwards.
“Brick schools do not have an expense problem, we have a revenue problem,” Edwards has repeatedly stated.
“Under the current funding formula, the NJ Department of Education…says another $35 million should be raised right now in local taxes to support our schools. That would be an increase of $992 to the average assessed home,” he said.
The state formula has determined that Brick is a wealthy district that can afford to increase the tax levy to fund the schools, Edwards said. However, critics of the formula have questioned how the state came up with this calculation. The state has refused to give this information, saying it is “proprietary.”
Superintendent Farrell said the administrative team created a budget that is fiscally responsible and focuses on maintaining existing student programs and class sizes while providing a quality education.
The local tax levy for the proposed spending plan is $115,155,355. It includes $28,656,013 in state aid and $3,720,586 in federal aid.
“Without doing anything to our budget, expenditures would increase by $5.1 million, just in salaries and benefits,” Farrell said.
In order to achieve a balanced budget, nearly $3 million in surplus was utilized, and about 50 jobs were eliminated (averaging $90,000 in salary and benefits), saving $4.5 million.
Farrell said he hoped that some of the job cuts would be absorbed through retirements and attrition, which average 20 to 25 a year. There are 15 right now, he added.
The 50 eliminated positions include 10 at the high school level, 19 at the middle-school level, 16 at the elementary school level, three teacher aides, one grounds employee, and one CST employee.
Salaries and benefits make up about 80 percent of the budget, and this year’s increase is about $5 million, Farrell said. This combined with the $4.2 million decrease in state aid creates an $8 million shortfall “without even blinking an eye,” he said.
The district has the ability to only increase the tax levy to the two percent cap (of which only 1.8 percent is being utilized because of debt service), Farrell said. Some $2 million is earmarked for debt service in the proposed budget.
“The most important factor when we were looking at this budget was to minimize the negative effect of a lack of funding on class sizes,” the superintendent said.
The approximate overall class sizes for the 2020-2021 school year would range from a low of 20 in the early elementary level to a high of 32 in the upper elementary level, said Director of Planning Research and Evaluation Susan McNamara.
At the middle school level, the class sizes would range from a low of 24 to a high of 30 in grades six through eight.
Average class sizes for special courses and physical education/health would vary depending on the number of sections and available staff, she said. Special education classes vary upon the program and state-regulated class sizes.
At the high school level, the average number of students per core subject area would be around 21 or 22. Other courses, depending on variables such as staffing and course selection could be higher or lower than the number of students in the core subjects, McNamara said.
Director of Special Services Kristen Hanson said that a $4,290,330 NJ Preschool Expansion Grant would have a positive financial impact for the district by decreasing the need for expensive special education supports, costly academic programs and services, placing students in out-of-district schools, and more.
The former Herbertsville Elementary School will house the expanded preschool program for children from both sides of town, she said. The district expects an enrollment of 330 general education preschoolers and 168 special education students there.
“This grant is instrumental in our district’s initiative to intervene early with students,” she said.
The expansion grant provides for 14 new pre-k teachers and nine pre-k aides. 24 full-time employees were repurposed for the pre-school, and new positions include one autism teacher and one behaviorist.
“We believe, and research has proven, that early intervention with students will result in better outcomes for students, such as reducing special education needs and increasing academic success,” Hanson said.
Other budget highlights include $5,790,552 for capital projects, $9,090,293 for transportation, $34,920,271 for benefits, $8,568,434 for operations and maintenance, and 7,720,639 for administration.
The district is scheduled to lose another $5.2 million for the 2021-2022 school year budget, which Farrell said could be “catastrophic to our student programming, class sizes and staffing.”
There were no public comments on the budget.