26 May Millstone School District to Appeal $1.2M Budget Cut (NJ)

May 26, 2010

By: Jennifer Kohlhepp
Source: The Examiner

The Board of Education has rejected the Millstone Township Committee’s decision to reduce the proposed tax levy in support of the new school budget by over $1.2 million.

The board unanimously voted May 18 to appeal the governing body’s decision to the New Jersey commissioner of education and seek restoration of the reduction.

After voters rejected the proposed $32 million school budget and the supporting $26.7 million tax levy in the April 20 election in a 1,149 to 869 vote, the Township Committee reviewed the spending plan and resolved to decrease the tax levy to $25.4 million.

To cut $1.2 million in spending, the Township Committee recommended that the district create five tiers of teachers and administrators based on their salaries. The lowest paid staff would get a 3 percent salary increase next year, the next to lowest paid would get a 2 percent increase and so on, meaning the highest paid staff would not get a raise. The committee also suggested reducing bus drivers’ salaries by 5 percent next year, converting all current health care buyouts to the new state health care buyout plan and not paying tuition money owed to the Upper Freehold Regional School District. The committee said that the proposal would save $914,609 in salary and benefit costs and $350,000 in tuition costs.

In its resolution opposing the Township Committee’s budget cut, the Board of Education alleged that cutting $1.2 million would negatively impact the stability of the school district. The board also stated that the committee recommendations violate the existing terms and conditions of employment contracts and reduce special education staff.

The Township Committee has taken issue with the school district striking a new three-year contract agreement with union members just days before finding out state aid figures. The district’s state aid was cut 29 percent, and the committee continues to urge the district to renegotia te the union contract. The committee has also taken issue with Board Attorney Michael Gross for not putting a clause in the contract that could have nullified the agreement based on state aid cuts or the district’s ability to pay salary increases.

The new contract does not provide a salary increase to union members this year but increases their salaries 6 percent next year and 4.25 percent the following year. The contract also moves all district employees into the state health care plan for the 2010-11 school year, which saved the district $300,000, according to Board of Education President Tom Foley. The school district did try to reopen the contract in early May. On May 11, the union attorney sent a letter stating that the union does not want to reopen negotiations.

With regard to the other committee recommendations, Foley noted that not paying tuition owed to the Upper Freehold Regional School District would only be an option if that district agreed to postpone billing for the payment. District Business Administrator Bernard Biesaida noted that the $350,000 would only pay a portion of the total $754,000 owed to the regional school district.

Despite the board’s opposition to the Township Committee’s decision, the board still has to plan for $1.2 million worth of cuts during the appeal process. In a worst-case scenario, the cuts would impact 45-50 positions in the school district, according to Superintendent of Schools Mary Anne Donahue.

Donahue said the Township Committee’s recommendations for reducing the budget include adjusting a contract agreement with the union.

“If the teachers do not engage in talks, we can’t do it,” she said. “The only thing we can do is reduce staff. We can’t reduce tuition to Upper Freehold. We can’t reduce tuition for special education.”& lt;br />

The district currently has 22 students with special education needs, according to Donahue.

“What we’re left with is regular education K-8, including outsourcing transportation to save $250,000, outsourcing other services and cutting staff,” Donahue said.

Bus drivers at the meeting wanted to know when they would find out if they would still have jobs come September.

Foley said public meetings regarding cutting $1.2 million from the spending plan would start May 24. Biesaida said the state would not start hearing appeals until July 1. The district will not know if any cut funding would be restored until the late summer, according to Biesaida.

“Hopefully, it would be known by the beginning of the school year,” Biesaida said.

Meanwhile, taxpayers will be responsible for the $25,411,101 tax levy set to support the 2010-11 school budget. The township would have to tax for any money returned to the district through the appeal process in 2011-12, according to Biesaida.

Members of the Board of Education and members of the Township Committee urged residents and union members to get involved with the school budget issues. The next public meeting will take place May 24 in the Millstone Township Middle School media center.

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