Council puts $2.5 million of the BOE budget on the chopping block

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:40

    Sparta — The Board of Education met with the Township Council Monday night to hear the council’s proposed cuts to the schools’ defeated $56.3 million dollar budget. The council chamber was filled to overflowing with more than 100 people, the majority of whom reacted with shock at Mayor Scott Seelagy’s announcement that, pending further discussions with the board, the initial number the council considered cutting from the budget was $2.1 million. Seelagy presented three major line-item areas in which he believed there are over-budgeted funds. He made it clear the council wanted to look for ways to cut that would not directly impact teachers’ positions and student programs. Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton and Business Administrator Dr. Warren Ceurvels, said Seelagy had misinterpreted the allocation of the funds on the line items and that all funds in question are connected to existing and proposed expenditures. Morton said these were all made clear in the board’s public budget presentations. Seelagy stressed that none of the proposed cuts reduced the number of teachers and asked councilmembers if they concurred. Gil Gibbs of the BOE said he thought some funds should be put back into staffing and programs at the middle school. Molly Whilesmith said she could concur with some cuts as long as teachers and programs are not impacted. Ceurvels explained Tuesday that much of the confusion is because municipal and school district budgets are prepared by two different systems, although both are defined by the state. He said school budgets are very detailed and subject to different pre-set rules and regulations and use different coding methods. He also stressed that prior to going to the public for a vote, the school budget was vetted and approved by the county superintendent and county business administrator, so any discrepancies or irregularities would have been noted. Ceurvels said board and district officials were disappointed that several thorough information meetings did not take place with council members prior to Monday. He said, “Had we been working together and on the same page, they could have taken the information we prepared and brought their questions to us prior to Monday night. Then we could have had graphic representations to fully answer their concerns and perhaps come away with a settlement.” But no settlement was reached Monday night and Seelagy concluded the presentation with the $2 million number still tentatively on the table. He and Murphy met further with board and district officials on Tuesday afternoon for several hours, and further documentation addressing the council’s questions was provided. There were no reports of an agreement. A full summary of the documentation the board provided to the council in their Tuesday meeting is available on the district Web site and will be available to the public at the Wednesday night meeting, at which the council is slated to decide the final school tax levy number by a resolution vote. This will occur after press time and a follow-up on the outcome will be reported next week. The public speaks out During approximately two hours of public participation on Monday, nearly 25 residents spoke with only three suggesting some kind of cuts, citing a difficult economy and the tax strains on the unemployed and those with fixed incomes. But the majority begged the council to leave the budget as is. Many offered impassioned pleas on behalf of their children and others expressed concern for the future of the town. Several suggested Seelagy and Murphy and new BOE members Frank Favichia and Richard Bladek should recuse themselves from the proceedings because of the appearance of impropriety brought on by their unauthorized meeting on budget matters. Audience members responded loudly to many comments and some received standing ovations. Former councilman Mike Spekhardt said, “I ask that when you vote, you do in your heart what is best for the town.” Deirdre Mastandrea said distrust was created by the newly elected BOE members saying they used false budget numbers in their campaigns. She also accused Seelagy’s wife of advocating for the budget’s defeat. She said, “I am just heartbroken over this budget. Why are we all fighting over $60?” Lisa Binder said she is a senior citizen but voted for the budget because she believes nothing is more important than the education of children. She said, “I grew up in Greece where parents ate less to give their kids a better education.” Kevin Pollison said Tuesday, “To infer that the BOE can easily absorb this loss without affecting programming and classroom instruction is misguided.” BOE budget numbers explained The Board of Education proposed a $56. 3 million operating budget and a $49.3 million tax levy for the 2011/2012 school year. The $49.3 million tax levy includes a 2 percent, or $967,000, tax levy increase over last year. $439 represents the expected increase in 2011 school taxes for a home assessed at the township average ($301,800). $145 of the $439 increase is due to a $57.2 million loss in township assessment after a record number of citizens submitted and won tax appeals. $234 of the $439 increase is due to last year’s school tax levy increase. Property tax bills are based on a calendar year (Jan. - Dec.) while the school tax levy is based on an academic year (July - June). Residents will pay half of last year’s school tax levy (an 8.6 percent increase) and half of next year’s school tax levy (a 2 percent increase) in this year’s property tax bill. Only $60 of the $439 increase is due to the proposed 2011-2012 school budget increase. For a home assessed at the township average of $301,800: A $100,000 cut from the proposed school budget will reduce yearly taxes by $6.16 A $1 million cut from the proposed school budget will reduce yearly taxes by $61.82 A $2 million cut from the proposed school budget will reduce yearly taxes by $123.60