Long-time Board of Education member Luis Abreu will appear on the ballot, along with Mark Denfeld, who was appointed to the Board last year, and newcomer Alma Martir, a New York-based physical therapist who has two children in Roosevelt School.
Denfeld was appointed to the Board last year upon the death of long-time member Silvia Climent. This is the first time Denfeld appears on the ballot. Martir will take the place of outgoing member Dr. Joseph McLaughlin. Abreu, Denfeld and Martir will all gain three-year terms on the board after the upcoming election.
But the more pending item on the ballot in two weeks is the 2008-09 school board budget, a total of $21,357,817, an increase of $410,000 from last year. The new budget calls for a slight tax raise, probably around $50 per household with an averaged property value assessed at $140,000.
The initial budget calls for an increase in the tax levy of $1.5 million to $14.8 million.
"We're increasing it by the maximum we can under state law, which is 4 percent," Board of Education President Richard Barsa said. "With the rising costs of health benefits and our contractual obligations, there was nothing we could do."
Bond needed for improvements
There's another aspect to this year's ballot. Not only will the voters be voting on whether or not to approve the budget for the coming year, but there's a $7.5 million bond referendum on the ballot that calls for an additional tax increase of $76 per household.
The 20-year bond will enable the district to make structural improvements to the schools, like purchase two new boilers for Webster and Roosevelt Schools, as well as roofing, windows and improvements to the science laboratories.
"The boilers are both 37 years old," Superintendent of Schools Kevin McLellan said. "They need to be replaced before they go."
The Board of Education is trying to capitalize on a funding plan from the state that will enable the district to receive 40 percent of the debt services incurred by the improvements, but there is a chance that the funding might not be there next year or any time in the future.
"That's why we need to do it now and put this on the ballot now," Barsa said. "We don't know what the future brings with cuts being made at the state level. We have to take advantage of it now."
It will be the second time that Weehawken proposed a bond referendum that called for improvements in the schools and received the 40 percent break from the state. Four years ago, the school district needed to make improvements that met Americans with Disabilities Act federal regulations and received voters' approval on that bond issue.
So while the Weehawken homeowner will see a hike in future tax bills, school officials feel it will be money well spent. They were able to reduce the cost of health benefits for the coming year by $170,000 and did receive an additional $65,000 in state aid, while not increasing the budget for special education at all, keeping it stable rather than increasing it.
"Everything else is the same from last year," Barsa said. "We haven't made many changes. We don't have any other choice. It's not like we're spending frivolously."
"We just have to make sure that we take care of the maintenance of the schools now, because the cost later on would be astronomical to the taxpayer," McLellan said. "This is being more cost efficient in the long run."
Barsa said that two of the district's outstanding bonds from the 1990s will come off the books in two years, at the same time that the first payment on the new loan will be due.
"The first bond payment won't take effect until 2009-10," Barsa said. "We're getting a one-year grace period before the payments need to be made. We also anticipate more ratables to be on the books for the next budget year that will offset some of the costs in the future."
Barsa is somewhat certain that the voters will approve this budget that includes the approximate $50 tax hike per household, as well as the bond referendum that will add an additional $76 per household.
"I'm pretty confident the voters will approve it like they've done in the past," Barsa said. "We just can't afford these improvements under our general fund. Tax rates would quadruple."
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner applauded the efforts of the Board.
"The school board made the right decision to put this referendum on the ballot," Turner said. "We can't afford a new school. We have to take advantage of the 40 percent while it's out there. This is the best economic way to make improvements to our schools. We had no choice. We have to take advantage of the state funds while they're available. There will be a huge concern if we don't take advantage of it now."
The new tax rate for the school board stands at $13.40 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
Right now, the district spends $14,574 per student for the coming year, a number that is a little higher that the state average of $12,000 per student.
"But we've worked very hard to make progress with our schools," McLellan said. "We want to continue to go in the right direction. We saved the positive things we need to give our students, to make sure that they continue to have that competitive edge."
"Every year is a challenge putting out a school budget," Barsa said. "People have to realize that having a solid and good school system gives their homes higher appreciation and better value. It's definitely money well spent."
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or firstname.lastname@example.org