JACKSON – Facing a drop in state aid, district Superintendent Stephen Genco recently introduced a tentative spending plan for the district which will include a tax increase.
“We are going backwards for the first time,” Genco said in discussing the budget’s preparation. The superintendent said that “by raising to the full 2 percent of the tax levy that will be on the average home, we will see a $119 increase.”
When crafting the annual budget, school districts are allowed to increase the tax levy by up to 2 percent.
“Typically, our tentative budget is 95 percent done. This tentative is truly tentative. We have a lot of work to do. We’ve budgeted very conservative with health care and we hope those numbers come out better and if so we’ll put those numbers back. We are obviously looking at transportation and fuel costs,” he said.
Jackson was among several local districts who were facing a cut in state aid due to a new funding formula. During the course of the next six years, state aid will be reduced by millions of dollars every year.
“We had to work through a $5.6 million problem and you can’t do that by purely cutting. We have raised revenues in places and increased our surplus which in time will hurt us. I’m looking to protect things now because if things don’t get better, they could get much worse,” Genco said.
The superintendent said the surplus account would be increased by $600,000 and increased its miscellaneous account because the district learned pre-school and cafeteria was making a profit, to $1.4 million.
“We’ve cut a tremendous amount in staffing. People are more important than paper but tentatively we are looking at 20 positions. We do have many retirements. I do believe we can handle most of this through attrition,” Genco said.
A half million dollars’ worth of capital projects were cut from the budget. Money used for professional development in the amount of around $200,000 was put into the salary line “to protect staff. We are also trying to protect class sizes,” Genco said.
Board member Thomas Colucci asked about the district’s chances of success regarding its legal battle over the state aid cuts. The Jackson’s school system joined a coalition of districts in a unified front to get back and retain millions of dollars in state aid that Senate President Steve Sweeney’s school funding law known as S2 removed.
“I think the lawsuit will be somewhat successful but I don’t think it will settle any time soon,” Genco said.
“We possibly face over $20 million in cuts (to state aid) over the next seven years. The narrative that over funded districts versus underfunded districts is over-simplifying things. It is a ridiculous statement,” Genco said regarding the state’s position.
The intended goal of the SFRA (School Funding Reform Act) was to create a fair and equitable school formula to fund the state’s school districts but it has faced opposition from numerous districts who claim it is detrimental and triggered the litigation before the Commissioner of Education.
“State aid was frozen for seven years and we were all (given a) 2 percent cap. I don’t believe there is a district in the entire state that was overfunded. How could there be?” Genco said.“With our lobbying group we’ve been saying the multipliers are wrong. We know they’ve been wrong for a number of years. The multipliers do not consistently interpret income and property values.”
He added “the calculation generated are inconsistent with the actual changes in the income and property values. What has changed in Jackson in the last five-seven years to all of a sudden to go to under adequacy to over adequacy? Not much.
“Some districts that got money (in state aid) last year lost money this year,” Genco said. “Jackson receives about $600,000 in transportation aid. Jackson is over 100 square miles and transports 99 percent of its students. Like districts are getting a lot more in transportation aid.”
Board members agreed. “Saying our district was overfunded is a crock. Other towns are getting a ton of money and they don’t have a ton of students,” Board of Education vice president Sharon Dey said.
Genco said the aid formula does not address related transportation issues. “Jackson borders Lakewood and nonpublic transportation payments made in lieu have gone up five times in the last five years. It is an issue we can’t ignore.
“This year we’ve had over 500 students register since Sept. 1. Over 100 of them also registered as English language learners requiring additional staff, not less staff. We’ve always had a special education population right at 14 percent. We are over at 18 percent and that requires more staff, not less,” Genco said.
Genco added that “if you are going to paint with a broad brush that Jackson needs less aid because it doesn’t have as many students you aren’t doing a service to this district or any other to do that.”