The Secaucus Board of Education has until June 9 to strike a final budget that is in line with the tax levy, spending cuts, and other recommendations made by the Town Council. But the ripple effects from this bitter budget battle could be felt for years to come.
On the evening of May 19 the school board and Schools Superintendent Cynthia Randina accepted a budget ultimatum that had been made the day before by the Town Council. Under a revised $32.2 million budget put together and approved by the council on May 18, the school board has agreed to make $1.4 million in spending cuts from the 2011-2012 school budget that the board approved in March, but was rejected by the voters in April.
“This is like telling me how to save money at my house.” – Tom Troyer.
Randina and the board trustees had originally rejected this budget in favor of a second one proposed by the council that would have required steeper cuts and a decrease in the tax levy.
Tussling began last month
Tussling over the 2011-2012 school year budget began last month after voters rejected the school board’s proposed budget of $33.1 million. Under that budget, $32.1 million would have been raised through tax dollars necessitating a tax increase of 3.3 percent.
After that budget was rejected, a process was set in motion which, according to state law, allowed the Town Council to set a new tax levy and make budget cuts to reduce the financial burden on residents.
Some board members clearly bristled under the budget-cutting process that has ensued over the last several weeks. And two trustees now claim the council’s budget will affect everything from current contract negotiations with the teachers’ union, to future school spending plans, and even the 2013 mayoral election.
Troyer, Marra: Not happy
“Mayor [Michael] Gonnelli, he’s made a mistake. He’ll see. This is going to blow up in his face,” said School Board Trustee Tom Troyer last week. “He cut too damn much from the budget and this is now going to hurt teachers and students in next year’s budget and in the school budgets after that.”
Troyer said Randina and the school board put together “a good budget,” and he believes the council should have endorsed that spending plan – the same one rejected by voters – and should have sent it to the state and county for certification.
“This is like telling me how to save money at my house,” quipped Troyer.
He predicted that Gonnelli’s political opposition, including possible Democratic mayoral hopeful Peter Weiner, will use the budget cuts as a campaign issue in 2013. Weiner’s wife, Mary Ann Weiner, is a current school board trustee.
Fellow board trustee Dora Marra is also concerned about the spending cuts that were made, but was more upset about the way in which the revised budget was drafted.
“I never got to express my feelings towards anything,” she said, adding that the first time she saw the council’s revised budget was on May 18. She had hoped to see a copy of the council’s revised budget at a meeting that had been scheduled for May 12. That meeting, she said, was cancelled by Gonnelli. “I had one hour to go over the whole budget.”
The council’s budget committee included Town Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Margaret Barkala; Acting Tax Collector Nick Goldsack (who is also a CFO); Town Administrator David Drumeler; Deputy Mayor John Bueckner; Councilman Robert Costantino; and Mayor Gonnelli. The committee also received input from Acting School Board Business Administrator Ron Smith, Town Attorney Anthony D’Elia, and the town auditors.
Much of the budget trimming was done by the members of this committee, although Randina and some board members were also involved in the process.
As far at the line items that were added back into the budget, Marra asked, “Where did they get that list from? They didn’t get it from me. They didn’t get it from the superintendent.”
In addition to the $1.4 million in cuts, the council requested the restoration of five line items that had been cut by Randina: Camp Wappalany; extracurricular and co-curricular activities; a guidance counselor; supervision for the elementary lunch period; and work hours for teachers’ aides. The restoration of these line items total $303,658.
But the educational value of these line items, Marra said, is questionable at best.
Council members have said that those line items have a high educational value.
Gonnelli: Are you kidding me?
Last week Gonnelli scoffed at the trustees’ claims and allegations.
“They can claim all they want,” the mayor said last week. “When taxpayers voted [the budget] down they sent a clear message. It was voted down big. Voters were not happy with the budget Randina and the board presented…There were several meetings with Randina and [Acting Board Administrator] Ron Smith. It’s not my job to invite board trustees to those meetings. It’s their job to do that. We had to continue the process in the time that we had.”
Gonnelli pointed out that voters rejected the school board’s original budget on April 27. By state law, the council was required to turn in its revised budget to several state and county agencies by May 19. This left the council with a very tight time frame within which to work.
Also, in the three weeks allowed for the council to make changes, several key players were unavailable to meet in person, Gonnelli said. Board Administrator Ed Walkiewicz – who drafted the original school budget but who is now on sick leave from his job – could not be reached by phone. Smith and the school district’s staff accountant both went out of town on trips that had been scheduled before the budget failed at the polls.
As for Troyer’s criticism that “too much was cut,” Gonnelli maintains that health brokers the council consulted with said the school district could save a lot of money by switching to state the health plan rather than staying with Oxford.
“They were padding their budget,” Gonnelli added. “We gave them enough leeway to save money in that one line item. The cuts we made did not impact any teachers, programs, or students.”
The council’s revised budget was submitted to the Hudson County superintendent of schools, the county’s board of taxation, the Department of Community Affairs’ Division of Local Finance, and the local tax assessor.
The BOE has until June 9 to strike a final budget. The board has agreed to restore the five line items that council wanted put back in. School trustees are required to maintain the current tax levy and to make $1.4 million in spending cuts. However, Randina and the BOE are not required to make the specific spending cuts suggested by the Town Council. The school body can choose to make other cuts that total $1.4 million, if it chooses.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.