BOE Makes Small Cuts to Avoid Big Problems
Summit escaped the state aid cuts in March without having to layoff any staff and with minimal program eliminations.
Expect the unexpected.
If anything, that's what Summit residents learned this winter first when Gov. Chris Christie announced March 17 that Summit would lose 100 percent of its state aid, slightly more than $2.5 million.
Then, the common council pulled a wild card out of its back pocket.
"Council has a responsibility to control increases," Councilman Rich Madden, also the head of the finance committee, said at the April 7 council meeting. "The voters have mandated change."
A little-known law allowed council to do its own audit of the schools budget, which resulted in a request to trim an additional $350,000 to cap the school's tax levy increase at 4.9 percent.
"I love Summit. I love our school system," said Council President Dave Bomgaars. "But this is a year for tough love."
But Summit survived both rounds of cuts relatively unscathed compared to many other local districts. But how did they do it?
The district achieved the cuts through a change in work rules to cover the math and writing labs as "duty periods" instead of "teaching periods," which cost less. The board also eliminated $41,300 in the costs of conferences and other fees for the district's principals through concessions from the Summit Principals Association and decided not to fill two supervisor positions after the staff members retired, including the art supervisor, which alone saved the district $147,820. The other, the math K-8 supervisor/basic skills supervisor, brought a savings of $136,613.
Several extracurricular activities at Summit High School, such as the literary and art magazines; and at the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School, including the newspaper and drama programs, were also lost when stipends were eliminated for the organizations' advisers.
But compared to other districts, Summit fared quite well.
Cranford's budget, which raised the levy 3.2 percent or $209 for a home assessed at $181,740, eliminated 48 staff positions. In Springfield, only five positions were eliminated, raising the taxes 3.97 percent or $121 for a house assessed at the township average of $157,000. Westfield's school budget eliminated 33 positions and raises the taxes 4 percent, or $306 for a home assessed at $180,000. It also institutes a student activity fee for all students involved in extra-curricular activities.
Summit was able to avoid cutting into programming and staff by finding savings in a variety of different areas.
For example, Business Administrator Lou Pepe announced at the Sept. 16 workshop meeting that as a result of a request for proposal (RFP), the district has decided to switch banks. The move from Bank of America to Investor's Savings Bank means a higher interest rate on the district's savings at .75 percent for the first year and a guaranteed .25 percent rate after that.
The new account also has no monthly cost and no balance requirements, which will save about $60,000 for the district. The district also has trimmed $25,000 from the budget by using eight parking spaces in the Sampson Lot near the middle school for vans from the Morris-Union Jointure Commission to transport Summit special-education students. In the past, the district paid for transportation from another town to transport the students, according to Donner Schneider, assistant business administrator.
"It mounts up to staff members," Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nathan Parker said.
Dr. Jane-Kachmar-Desonne, director of special-education services, also reported that four autistic students have been brought back into the district at Jefferson School this year. While this move required the hiring of one full-time teacher and three full-time aides, the district still saves $330,000.
"The costs associated with opening a class in district results in a significant savings as compared to the cost of out-of-district tuition, additional related services and transportation for those children," Schneider said.
"I think the reason there wasn't a lot of blood this year is because the board has been fiscally responsible in the past and my predecessor was for years," Parker said, citing cuts made over the last three years, including eliminating health benefits for aides.
Moving forward, the district has created a committee to study the feasibility of implementing a fee-based, full-day kindergarten program. Parker has previously said this could be a huge revenue generator for the district. He said exact numbers are not yet known.
But could the relatively smooth budget process from this past year be the calm before the storm?
"The challenges are enormous and in some ways that makes it more fun," Board of Education President Jack Lyness said in a interview with Patch after he was named president in June. "But I would be lying if I said I wasn't fearful of the next year."
Lyness said he and Parker are hoping to get an early start on the budget process to find new ways of doing things to help save money.
"We've gone as far as we can go without cutting staff," Parker said. "And you're going to increase class size."
This story is part of a nationwide Patch series probing the economy's effect on local schools. For more on the impact on Summit schools, see here.