South Brunswick School District officials praised the community after voters passed the school budget for the fourth straight year last night, despite difficult economic conditions.
"I think this is a clear indicator that this community, in the toughest of times, has their priorities in order," said Superintendent Gary McCartney. "This is a community that values and supports great educational programs and they showed that by passing the budget for the fourth straight year."
South Brunswick voters approved the 2011-12 school budget by a margin of 2,161 to 1,546. The overall budget is about $134.5 million with a $95 million general fund levy that carries a 12.2 cent tax rate increase, which raises the school tax rate to $2.802 per $100 of assessed valuation.
A township home with an assessed value of $200,000 will see an increase of about $244 in school taxes under the approved budget ($20.33 per month) and a home assessed at $300,000 will see an increase of about $366 ($30 per month).
Budget Committee Chair and outgoing Board of Education member Martin Abschutz, who did not seek another term, said this year was the most difficult during his 9 years on the board in terms of crafting the budget.
"We put a lot of energy into this process, more than any other year during my time on the board," he said. "The Board of Education and the administration worked very hard to balance the needs of the students with the community's ability to pay for it."
Abschutz praised the involvement of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee, whose input helped to save about $600,000 in projected expenses.
About 15 percent of 24,780 registered voters in South Brunswick cast their ballots in the election yesterday. Last year, out of 24,101 registered voters, 6,133 people voted for a turnout rate of 25.45 percent, an unusually high turnout for a school election. Last year's budget was passed by a vote of 3,199 to 2,858.
The 2011-12 budget includes the elimination of 34.1 full time equivalent employees from across the district. The layoffs include five employees from administration, 12.6 from the teaching staff, two employees from educational services, 10 paraprofessionals, 2.5 secretaries, and two maintenance employees.
The layoffs represent the third consecutive year of double digit staffing reductions. The 2009-10 budget cut 25.3 full-time equivalent employees and last year eliminated 111.9 full-time equivalent employees. With the approved 2011-12 budget, deeper staffing cuts were avoided. Class size teacher-student ratios for grades K-1 will be 1:23, for grades 2-5 will be 1:25 and for grades 6-12 will be 1:28.
The budget maintains the tax levy at the same level for the third consecutive year. The district was facing unprecedented challenges due to a 4.3 percent drop in the township's total assessed value to approximately $3.7 billion. South Brunswick Township Chief Financial Officer Joe Monzo said at a board meeting last month that drop in and of itself would cause an increase in taxes, even if the school budget remained the same as last year.
For the first time in 20 years, South Brunswick's total assessed value dropped for two consecutive years. The district also lost about $9 million in funding due to successful tax appeals last year. With the decrease in ratables, the district had to increase the tax rate by 4.5 percent just to get back to the same tax levy as last year.
The district also faces a projected increase to health benefits (includes health, dental and prescription) of $1.8 million or about 10.5 percent and a pension cost increase of about $89,000 or 4.8 percent, according to Business Administrator Anthony Tonzini.
South Brunswick will receive about $20.1 million in state aid this year, an increase of $1.26 million, but still short of the $6.3 million in aid that was cut last year. On top of the difficulties caused by the economy, the district is also projected to lose about $1.6 million from state aid for approximately 150 students from South Brunswick that the state projects to attend two charter schools. The funding lost to charter schools represents a 221 percent increase over last year.
"My sense is that this is one of the toughest years we've had since I've been here," Dr. McCartney said. "I'm so appreciative of the folks in this community who want to continue to have quality educational programming and put their money where their mouth is."