Council's final cut on school budget: $568K

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:42

    School tax levy increase trimmed to one percent, By Fran Hardy SPARTA — Although the township council’s final cut from the 2011-2012 school budget was less than a quarter of the $2.5 million it originally proposed, the $568,394 amount agreed to by a 4-1 vote last Wednesday night was still received by residents who believed there should be no cuts at all. The meeting began with Mayor Scott Seelagy detailing a list of cuts totaling $711,320. This number was considerably revised from the $2.5 million in cuts proposed at the joint meeting with the board of education on Monday, May 16. Seelagy and Deputy Mayor Jerry Murphy met the next day with Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton and business administrator Dr. Warren Ceurvels, along with board president and vice president, Keith Smith and Dorothy Labeau to discuss the cuts and see documents showing justification for funds in certain line items on which they had questions. With this clarification, the council removed some proposed cuts and came to Wednesday’s meeting with over $700,000 in cuts still on the table. Some of these included two of the 12 teachers the board intended to hire to replace some of the 79 staff laid off last year. Other cuts were from the student activity fee accounts the board intended to use to reduce fees for high school students, and some cuts were from summer custodians and substitute teacher accounts. Councilwoman Molly Whilesmith said she was under the impression council’s cuts would not include teachers. She said, “Every budget presentation I heard included adding those 12 teachers.” Councilman John Schon said, “The BOE can move funds around and find ways to hire all 12.” During another lengthy public participation, citizens again implored the council to leave the budget alone. Deirdre Mastandrea said, “Last year the budget lost by 70 percent and you cut $600,000. This year the budget lost by 3 percent and you cut $700,000?” She added, “You should be proud of yourselves. You’re raping the school system.” Jonathan Rush said, “You’re taking a two percent budget that was within the cap with no waivers or exceptions and cutting it to a one percent budget. You’ve been looking like detectives for misallocations and they’re not there.” Later Rush mentioned that the municipal budget came in over the cap at more than seven percent because of waivers and asked, “Think of how you’d have to scramble to provide services if someone slashed your budget.” Four board members spoke as private citizens asking the council to reconsider the cuts. Doug McKernan said Sparta’s municipal Web site claims Sparta is “home to a thriving community” and touts the town’s excellent education, “both public and private.” He wondered how this reputation would hold after the town failed to pass the school budget two years in a row. Ilse Wolfe and Maureen Myre also implored the council to rethink their decision. Keith Smith said, “We need every single penny of that $700,000 to bring back some of what we lost last year.” Many others had something to say, among them Sparta Education Association president Susan Sawey, who called the cuts “capricious and arbitrary.” Ginny Jones said, “The savings on the tax impact is about as much as a pair of sneakers. I think what we need here is courage.” The council announced a ten minute recess and reconvened with Murphy announcing, “Given what we’ve heard tonight, we’ve decided to leave in the two teachers,” saying they would restore funds for the board to hire all 12 originally proposed. He said council’s total cuts would be $568,394. The council then proposed a resolution to reduce the original school tax levy of $49 million to $48.8 million and it passed 4 - 1, with Whilesmith voting no. When asked how the council arrived at this decision, Murphy said this week that the whole process was a sort of give and take. He said when council reduced the two teachers and saw the push back they received, they were leaning toward retaining all 12 teachers. He said, “We were not out to hurt the schools and everyone agreed it was the right thing to do.” Murphy said consensus to include all 12 teachers had been building during the meeting. He said, “During the break we kind of discussed it and the consensus was formalized.” Council then came back from the break, announced the decision, and moved on to the resolution. However, the actual tax levy sent to the state was $48.7 million, even though the number voted on was $100,000 higher. Township Clerk Mary Coe said Township Attorney Tom Ryan advised another vote was not necessary because the council accurately announced the number to be cut from the original tax levy, and the $100,000 error was purely clerical. Sparta’s average homeowner will see around $34 in yearly savings from the reduced tax levy. The board will meet in committees next week to discuss how they will allocate their remaining budget. Smith said, “Obviously we’re very disappointed because every penny lost hurts us as a district. We’ll work hard to bring back what we can with the dollars we have, with our first priority always the education of the students.”