‘Day of reckoning' falls on Sparta school district

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:47

    SPARTA-Education officials saw it coming, the "day of reckoning" proclaimed by acting Gov. Richard Codey when he announced his state budget last week. However, township residents or the five employees who will be without positions when Sparta begins the 2005 school year could not foresee the effects budget cuts would have on them. Sparta superintendent of Schools Thomas Morton said the district plans to eliminate a music instructor position, two speech teaching roles, and one mid-level administrative employee in answer to another year without an increase in funding from the state. The music teacher is retiring and the position will not be filled. "We're not cutting any programs at all," said Morton. "We're looking at delivering things in a different way. It just costs more to deliver the same program." Under Codey's budget proposal, Sparta and the vast majority of schools will not get additional help from Trenton, making it three out of four years without an increase. All but the state's 31 neediest districts will get the same state aid as last year. "It's not a good time for education in New Jersey," said Richard Lio, principal at Sparta High School. "It's not just Sparta. We should be expanding our curriculum, but our purse strings are going to be cut off by Trenton. It's going to be tough." The governor's budget would increase overall aid for public education from $305 million to $9.3 billion, making education the single largest account in the $27.4 billion state funding package. "This is the fourth straight year of fiscal incompetence and mismanagement," said Assemblyman Guy Gregg (R-24). "The state is not responding with any concern. If you're a superintendent or a school board member looking toward your next budget, there aren't too many solutions." Sussex County Superintendent of Schools Barry Worman said there is no "firm answer" for solving Trenton's woes, but relief must start with the state legislators. He said schools, including Sussex Tech in Sparta, are already looking at cuts in programs and staffs. "A reduction in state aid to the districts would have been devastating," he said. "It was almost a relief that the budget was flat-funded. Limitations are good, but they can't be a stranglehold on the district when the cost of living is what it is." Almost $300 million of the governor's education budget is in fixed teacher pension and retirement costs, and already designated construction. Schools officials in Sparta said 82 percent of the township's education costs are tied up in personnel salaries and benefits. "It's a frustrating thing to deal with," said Ronald Wolf, assistant superintendent for business in the Sparta School District. "We think our budget is under control. There are just some things that are out of our control." Wolf said that even though the governor's budget does not call for cuts in education spending, state aid actually decreases for many communities including Sparta. He said in the last four years, state support for Sparta's school budget dropped from 22 percent to 15.3 percent last year and is expected to fall to 14.2 percent in 2006. "This is the worst of the four years," said Gregg. "We will end up with property taxes having to go up even more. New Jersey's going to get more expensive and people are going to get less relief." Sparta education officials believe the district will feel even more strain under new state-imposed spending limits that were pushed through the Assembly in the final year of Gov. James E. McGreevey's administration. The "cap" legislation (S-1701) or "big squeeze" as school officials refer to it, significantly restricts both how and the amount communities can spend to educate their children. The new law requires school districts to reduce their maximum school budget surplus to 3 percent in 2004-2005 and to 2 percent in 2005-2006, and requires the excess surplus to be used for property tax relief. "Because we have a cap of 3 percent, we're going to have to cut staff budgets," said Wolf. "We haven't got anywhere else to cut." Under the new law, school budgets cannot grow by more than 2.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is greater. Previously, the law limited spending to 3 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever was greater. Morton said Sparta's cost per pupil is almost $600 below the state average. Without additional assistance from the state, programs geared toward educating college-bound students are likely to suffer. "The deal breaker is we're a community that values education," said Lio. "Kids who want to learn come into our buildings. That's the ace up our sleeves, but the reality is that one or two teachers are better teaching 22 kids than teaching 32 kids. How do you teach 32 kids creative writing or public speaking?" Sparta education officials say the district is already trying to cope with enrollment numbers that are spiraling out of control. Since the school year began in September, the enrollment at Sparta High School, which is already beyond capacity at 1,104, has increased by 54 students. Officials project that this year's high school class of 240 senior students will be replaced by 370 current eighth-graders. "Where are we going to put the kids?" said Lio. "We're still attracting kids to the district." A proposed new $54 million high school would house 1,500 students beginning in September 2008, but the board of education has been unsuccessful in its attempts to find a site suitable for construction. "I'm the eternal optimist," said Lio, who has been visiting schools throughout the region to examine potential designs for a new building to replace the current facility, which is more than half-century old. "We've got to move ahead. We can't just come to a grinding halt. The reality of growth within our district is here. We have to do something about it."