The down economy will continue to affect the tax bills of residents after the South Brunswick Board of Education adopted a $138 million spending plan at last night's meeting. The budget, which increased by 1.15 percent over last year, lowers the general fund tax levy by about $630,000 to $96.2 million, but the tax rate will increase by about 5-cents to $2.85 per $100 of assessed valuation.
The owner of a township home with an assessed value of $200,000 will see their school taxes go up by about $100, while the owner of a home assessed at $300,000 will see an increase of about $148 in school taxes next year.
"We're asking for a small increase in operating expenses. When you look at the cost of gas, we know we needed a small increase in the operating budget, but when you put that on top of the ratable loss it looks like a big increase," said Board of Education President Stephen Parker. "We refinanced bonds and refinanced our debt and put that into the increase, which actually brought down the total tax levy. Not enough to make up for the full ratable loss, but enough to cut into it."
South Brunswick experienced another decline in ratables of about $5.4 million (2.3 percent) last year, which amounted to a 7-cent tax increase, according to Business Administrator Anthony Tonzini.
. Over the last seven years, South Brunswick's ratable base has decreased by $180 million. That drop in value has a greater impact on the school tax rate than any other factor, according to township officials.
By refinancing bond issues from 1997 and 2002, the district was able to save about $8 million. Through other cost containment and shared services initiatives, the district has saved about $18 million since 2007, Tonzini said.
The budget for next year will preserve the district’s current programming and staffing levels. South Brunswick has cut 212.7 full time equivalent employees since 2005-06. Included in those cuts were 33.5 administrators and 55 teachers. There may, however, be some slight cuts to staffing levels for kindergarten as enrollment is down this year, according to Assistant Superintendent Joanne Kerekes.
As part of the budget, teacher-student ratios for grades K-1 are maintained at 1:23, for grades 2-5 are maintained at 1:25 and for grades 6-12 are maintained at 1:28.
The budget continues the pay to participate policy for sports, music and clubs. Fees for Advanced Placement classes will be reexamined at the end of the school year, as Superintendent Gary McCartney said the $75 fee could possibly be lowered based on actual expenses.
The district took in about $400,000 from pay to participate fees to help cover the $1.6 million cost of running the various programs.
South Brunswick received $20.1 million in state aid last year, which represented an increase of $1.26 million, but is still short of the $6.3 million in aid that was cut in 2010-11.
The district lost about $1.6 million from state aid for students the state projects to attend charter schools. Even with the , the district must continue to budget for those students. PIACS has a June deadline to obtain a certificate of occupancy or will need to apply for another planning year extension from the Department of Education.
"We can't say we can lower taxes since we won't be using that ($1.6 million)," Dr. McCartney said. "We don't know that we won't be needing it (for charter schools), so if we ever used it to lower taxes, we may have to re-tax for it later. We believe it makes more sense to carry it forward."
South Brunswick has a per pupil cost ($11,552) that's $2,035 below the state average, which qualified the district for the increased aid, according to Tonzini.
During the public portion of the meeting, a South Brunswick resident noted that the district is spending about $7 million below what the state feels it should be spending.
The budget includes capital improvement projects for roof replacement at Crossroads South Middle School and Indian Fields Elementary School, as well as new windows at Dayton and Deans. The expense was offset by the district's Capital Reserve funds.
Tonzini pointed to the equalized tax rate among municipalities in Middlesex County, which reflects the true market values of properties in those townships. In terms of the tax rate for the schools, municipalities and county, South Brunswick rates as the 22nd lowest out of 25 municipalities in Middlesex County.
"What that means is, if you live in South Brunswick, if you could pick your house up and take it any place in Middlesex County that you wanted, there are only three places you could take your house and pay less taxes," McCartney said. "There are 21 places you could take your house where you would pay higher taxes. We have produced the results that we've produced and remained one of the least expensive, if you can use that term with taxes in New Jersey, one of the least expensive places in the entire county to live."
Three members of the public spoke during the meeting's public portion, with no comments offered in objection to the spending plan.
Unlike previous years, residents will not get to vote on the school budget next month. . Officials estimated the move could save the district $36,000 on the cost of running the April election.
Editor's Note: A quote was incorrectly attributed to South Brunswick Superintendent Gary McCartney during last night's meeting. The quote "What that means is that we're spending about $7 million below what the state says we should be spending" was said by a member of the public, not Dr. McCartney.
What are your thoughts on the budget? If you could vote on this budget as in previous years, would you support it? and share your thoughts in the comments.