The 2010-2011 Hoboken school budget reflects a fiscal house in order, which is fortunate, because the state came in and stole the sofa.
In the face of deep state aid cuts, the budget for the next fiscal year beginning July 1, 2010 has been reduced by 7 percent from the current year’s actual spending amount to $57.8 million, and the tax levy has been reduced by a little under 1 percent, school officials say.
When comparing the public-approved budget last April to the budget going before the public this April 20, the overall budget reduction is only 2 percent, and the tax levy remains stable.
“That might not be a large tax cut…but it’s the only one I’ve seen in the state.” – Robert Davis
After the state cut $669,000 in aid to the Hoboken schools for the current year – an unprecedented occurrence, according to Hoboken’s Interim School Business Administrator Robert Davis – the state unleashed a second round of harsh funding cuts for the upcoming year on St. Patrick’s Day, cutting $2.4 million for 2010-2011.
With only days to respond to the cuts and present a balanced school budget by the April election, many districts across the state had to lay off teachers or eliminate student programs. Other districts shifted the state’s missing portion to the taxpayer, or used up their surplus funds.
“The reason for [the reduction this year] is that most of my family is retiring.” – James Farina
“That might not be a large tax cut…but it’s the only one I’ve seen in the state,” Davis said at the public hearing on the budget on Tuesday.
The district’s interim administration, led by Interim Superintendent Peter Carter, had the schools braced for impact.
Carter said at the meeting, “It must be called ‘March Madness’ for a reason, for this has certainly been quite a month.”
At the next board meeting on April 13, Carter and his team will most likely be approved by the board to stay in Hoboken another year, since the board’s superintendent search has failed to find a successor in time.
Support from teachers, public
At the meeting, several members of the public credited the board and the administration for finding budget reductions without cutting teachers or eliminating programs.
Former board member Theresa Burns, who has been critical of the “Kids First” board majority in the past, was grateful to see a reduction and told the public watching on television, “Vote yes.”
A few teachers as well as the teachers’ union president thanked the board for not axing any instructors.
“When you lose teachers, you lose a lot of students,” teacher Denise Donnelly told the board.
The only member of the board to vote against the budget was Maureen Sullivan, who said the board could have done more. Sullivan supports a school board slate in the April 20 election that opposes members of the current board – board President Rose Markle and board member Irene Sobolov – who are backed by the board majority.
Sullivan is supporting the “Real Results” slate, led by Liz Markevitch and Perry Lin. She very publicly resigned from the “Kids First” group recently, saying their process to look for a schools superintendent was not transparent enough. In fact, the superintendent chosen recently by “Kids First” ultimately bowed out of the process, forcing the board to start again.
Sullivan said that a re-registration process to root out non-residents in the district could have increased revenue. Some members of the public have claimed that hundreds of kids sneak into the Hoboken schools from nearby towns. Administrators deny the number is that high.
Sullivan also said that the board did indeed cut a program, contrary to the board’s claim, as the International Baccalaureate (IB) program for gifted students will be phased out next year. Although the board did not address the IB program in open session, board member Ruth McAllister, who was absent from the meeting due to religious observation, spoke about it later in an interview.
She said that the district decided to make a switch from IB to Advanced Placement (AP) courses next year, and that the move was not related to the state cuts. The long-popular IB program was based on an international honors program that was taught to diplomats’ kids. But many other school districts focus on Advanced Placement courses instead.
McAllister said that the IB program will continue for the high school juniors who are already enrolled this year, but next year, juniors will be offered AP classes that can be used to accumulate college credits while still in high school. She said that they are making the switch because the school has no AP courses now, and there was a “cry” from parents for AP courses because they are more familiar to them, and because awarding AP credits can save college tuition costs down the road.
She said that the cost of administering the AP courses is less than the cost of the IB program.
McAllister said, “I guess you could call it a programmatic cut, but then you put AP in and it’s a programmatic addition.”
How they dodged the bullet
The state cuts for school districts for the current year, according to Davis, matched the amount of surplus funds that those districts controlled.
To compensate for the cuts this year and next year, Hoboken used most of its surplus – $1.4 million for 2009-2010 and $2.1 million for 2010-2011 – leaving only roughly $100,000 in surplus that is often used for tax relief.
Also contributing to budget stability, 14 non-faculty positions were eliminated, saving nearly $1.7 million in salaries and benefits.
Those positions included some non-teaching staff and administrators, including two principals. One principal position was eliminated by bringing the alternative high school back into the Hoboken High School building. The other was eliminated by allowing the Pre-K director to assume supervision of the Brandt School early education program.
The district is experiencing an increase in retirements, partially because employees are leaving before new state regulations reduce payouts for pensions and unused benefits, said McAllister.
“We have a lot of teachers who are retirement-eligible, but they enjoy teaching,” she said. “People are going to be losing money by working over the next two years. That’s a big incentive.”
One questionable budget tactic was to sell the school textbooks and lease them back over five years. Davis said at the meeting, “In a normal year you might not do it. This may be the most abnormal year in state history.”
While Davis called the move regarding the books “reasonably prudent,” Sullivan said at the meeting, “We’re basically pawning our textbooks.”
The public will vote on the budget on April 20. If they reject the spending plan, the budget will be sent to the City Council for cuts.
Most likely, the council will work with the school board to find reductions, but if the two sides cannot come to agreement, Hudson County Schools Superintendent Tim Brennan said Hoboken could ask him to step in to arbitrate the matter.
So far, Brennan has approved the proposed budget that will be presented to voters later this month.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at email@example.com. Raia drops out of election
Four seats on the board are up for election on April 20, and one of the 13 candidates in the race dropped out last week.
Frank Raia has removed himself from the election. He is a former school board president who lost his re-election bid last year. He is often a contender for local offices and is a local developer who was integral in bringing the ShopRite grocery store to Hoboken.
Raia was a contender for mayor in the special election last year following the arrest of Peter Cammarano.
In a letter to the board announcing his withdrawal, Raia cited a conflict because he is a member of the Board of Trustees at HoLa, the new dual-language charter school in Hoboken.
Charter schools have autonomy over their operations, but their funding comes through the public school board.
Raia noted in his letter that he was a proponent of bringing the dual-language school under the umbrella of the district before it was given a charter. The school board rejected HoLa as a district program last year due to cost issues and procedural mishaps.
Initially, Raia thought he could abstain on matters pertaining to the charter school, but he has since learned that he cannot sit on both boards simultaneously, he said.
The announcement comes just a week after Raia finalized his slate for the election – which included formerly independent candidates Kyelia Colon and Ken Howitt.
Raia said he will continue to campaign for Colon and Howitt, even though they’re now a slate of two.
The four seats up for a vote currently belong to board President Rose Markle and board members Irene Sobolov, Carrie Gilliard, and Jim Farina. Gilliard and Farina are not running for re-election.
Farina was asked at the school budget meeting last week if, in his nearly 40 years on the board, he had ever seen a budget that cut spending. He said that he had not.
“The reason for [the reduction this year] is that most of my family is retiring,” he quipped. – TJC