School budget fails for second year

| 30 Sep 2011 | 09:38

    Newcomers oust incumbents from board seats, By Fran Hardy Sparta — For the second year in a row, Sparta voters rejected the board of education’s proposed budget. Prior to last year, Sparta school budgets have passed every year for decades. Last year the 2010-2011 budget, with its 9 percent tax levy increase, got the thumbs down at the polls by 70 percent. The proposed $56.3 million dollar budget for 2011 - 2012 met the required state cap. This time voters rejected the budget by a margin of 89 votes. A second question on the ballot asking voters to approve an additional $500,000 to reinstate courtesy busing was also defeated, but by a larger margin of 738 votes. The three incumbent candidates, Jennifer Dericks, Adam Dempsey, and Phillip Guarraia lost their bids for a second term on the school board to challengers Scott Turner, Richard Bladek, and Frank Favichia. School elections have notoriously low voter turnouts, and Sparta’s was once again low, at around 22 percent of registered voters. But it was higher than the Sussex County average turnout, which was only 16 percent. Superintendent Dr. Thomas Morton said, “It’s a sad thing that a town as sophisticated as Sparta would vote down a 2 percent budget. The only people that will hurt is the students.” Morton also commented on the board incumbents’ loss, saying, “It’s a shame there was so much misinformation provided to residents. As a result, they lost some quality board members who worked very hard for the children of this town.” The candidates A reasonably low-key campaign - by Sparta’s standards - was run by the six candidates, peppered in the last two weeks by accusations from both sides of inaccuracies on budget numbers. The budget became the major issue of the campaign and was the subject of the majority of audience questions at the various candidates’ forums and debates. Favichia, who said he was also speaking on behalf of Turner and Bladek, said, “Last week’s BOE election was an example of democracy. The votes represented the voices of Sparta residents. The results indicate that a change is wanted within our district on fiscal accountability, academics and transparency. In short order, we will be integrated into the BOE and function as a team to address ongoing Sparta school district issues and business. The budget will now go to the town council for evaluation which is the defined process. The budget review process will be performed by members of the town council and the BOE working together to make appropriate decisions on behalf of the Sparta school district and citizens. This process is about to begin. At this time, any preconceived opinion on the outcome is pointless and will only complicate the understanding of the results.” Dericks said she knows she speaks for Guarraia and Dempsey in expressing disappointment over the outcome of the votes. She said, “It’s hard to believe the people of this town did not remember the impact of last year’s failed budget. The mayor himself told me many times there is no way our 2 percent budget will be defeated. Now the fate of our children’s education is in the hands of town council members. Will their legacy be the demise of the Sparta public schools or will they let the budget stand and allow the first small step toward recovery from last year? I pray they will do the right thing. The savings to the homeowner will be nearly invisible while the effects of any cuts to the schools will leave an indelible impression on our students, and on the image of our town. I have been honored to serve the students, parents and staff of this district. I hope the new people remember the students must come first.” The new candidates will be sworn in at the board’s reorganization meeting next week. What happens next with the budget? Sussex County Superintendent Dr. Rosalie Lamonte said the council must now review the budget. They can choose to cut a dollar amount to reduce the tax levy, or leave the budget as is. If they decide to cut a certain amount, they can also make recommendations regarding what portions of the budget to trim. However, the board will make the final decisions on what specifics will be cut to arrive at the reduced tax levy, if one is imposed. Lamonte said municipal governments are usually reasonable with school budgets and they understand that “cuts cannot be so large that the schools cannot provide a thorough and efficient education for the students.” Lamonte said she suggested to Morton that Jennifer Dericks continue to sit in on budget meetings with the council to assist with the process, “because of her knowledge of the budget.” Mayor Scott Seelagy had no comment on what direction the council might take with the budget because he said they had not begun their review. He said he would like to have at least one pre-public meeting to review the budget details with board representatives and then hopes to complete the process in only one public joint meeting. The council has a deadline of May 19 to submit a finalized tax levy to the state. Seelagy said the council must pass a resolution regarding this at a regular council meeting. However, the school district has a deadline of May 13 to notify staff members whether or not their positions will be cut, so officials said they will need to know the final tax levy number as soon as possible. Business administrator Dr. Warren Ceurvels said that for every $500,000 cut from the existing budget, the reduction in taxes for the average assessed home of $301,000 will be around $31 per year.

    Official school vote results
    For three BOE seats:
    Scott Turner — 1675
    Richard Bladek — 1648
    Frank Favichia — 1521
    Jennifer Dericks — 1160
    Phillip Guarraia — 1118
    Adam Dempsey — 979
    For the 2010/11 school budget:
    No — 1518
    Yes — 1429
    For the separate question as to whether courtesy busing should be re-instated:
    No — 1843
    Yes — 1105
    Note: The following certified results are now posted on the Sussex County Board of Elections’ Web site. These numbers reflect lower vote totals than first reported in the unofficial results available on election night. Board of Elections administrator, Marge McCabe said one of the cartridges from a voting machine from one district was counted twice on election night. When this was discovered, those additional votes were subtracted from the totals. She affirmed that the official totals are 100 percent accurate.