After several budget meetings involving a line-by-line analysis, the school board finally approved a budget of $68,444,885 for 1998. This reflects an increase of $3,234,133, or 4.96 percent, over last year's budget of $65,210,752. Using current figures, the estimated Class I school tax rate would be an increase of $2.18 or 4.6 percent over the current rate of $47.362. However, Assistant Superintendent of Schools Larry Blake notes that the adjusted base proportion will not be available from the county till after June 1 and could change the estimate given. The vote to approve the budget was five to two, with board members Mirzoeff and Sussman voting against it.
The main increases from last year's budget include an additional sum of approximately $1 million for special education, $1 million in a contingency fund for teacher salary increases anticipated as a result of the new teachers' contract currently being negotiated and $1 million in regular teacher salary step increases. In addition to these "givens," Superintendent of Schools Dr. Inserra pointed out that because of the anticipated increase in student enrollment, the equivalent of ten new instructors at a cost of $625,000 had to be added to the new budget.
The majority of the other increases are related to increases in the technology budget and additional monies allocated to cover the costs for an additional budget vote that may be needed should the board put forth a referendum within the next year for a bond for facilities improvement and expansions.
And, after several meetings that included some robust debate on the topic, two portables for the Manorhaven School were officially approved by the board for $185,767. Dr. Inserra noted that he now expects that before the end of the summer Manorhaven's kindergarten enrollment will exceed the latest enrollment figure of 87.
Dr. Inserra had initially only added one portable to Manorhaven. However, at the meeting, it was pointed out that one of the four English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Manorhaven had no space for next year, and the space for the other ESL classes was deemed somewhat inadequate. The board then decided to add another portable to fill the ESL program needs.
Board member Bob Scheer asked what the board was going to do about some unspent money, $300-$350,000, from a previous bond issue that was intended for an additional two classrooms at the Daly School. He mentioned that the district counsel advised the board that if it didn't construct the two classroom, it had to return the unused money from the bond to the taxpayers. (The bond approved by the voters was for the purpose of adding two classrooms to each of the elementary schools.)
Board member Joe Mirzoeff believes that this involves a moral issue because the three other elementary schools got their additional classrooms, while the Daly school, whose parents helped advocate for and help pass the bond, did not.
Dr. Inserra said he would like to try and use the money for additional classes at Daly if possible. But he wants to wait till the long range plans for the school are firmed up.
Also raised at the meeting was the possibility of floating a bond. Dr. Inserra noted that it would take 60-90 days to make a bond issue before it could go up for referendum. When asked what the earliest date for a referendum could be, Dr. Inserra replied that it would probably be sometime late in '98 or early '99. He also pointed out, however, that the board had not even finished its deliberations on its plans for September '99 yet.
In response to the argument that the portables are necessary at Manorhaven to maintain small class size, Mr. Mirzoeff stated that class size is not as important as quality of instruction. To his mind, "The cost is not justified, while other schools have greater needs," he said, adding that smaller class size is "just a way to make more jobs."
Board member Nancy Cowles noted that smaller or larger class size should be determined by the makeup of the group of students in the grade level. Dr. Inserra noted that occasionally administrators have felt that a larger class size would work well because of the nature of a particular class, while in other cases, small classes are really necessary to deal with the type of student population in a specific year.
Board member Bob Scheer criticized the budgetary practices of "public government" in general. He said that they should not "just assume we can take a 2 or 3 percent increase every year." He wanted to see the proposed school budget reduced 5 percent in all of its codes. "It's easy to spend other people's money," he declared.
Dr. Inserra reiterated that $3 million of the increase were "givens" (i.e. special education, teachers' upgrades and salaries). He also pointed out that the budget includes $40 million in salaries, which is a fixed sum.
Mr. Blake also pointed out that when other entities need money during their fiscal years, they simply add it to their budgets. However, the school district doesn't have that option. They can only spend the budgeted amounts approved by the voters, regardless of emergencies or unanticipated expenses that arise during the year, he noted.
Mr. Mirzoeff expressed concern over the fact that the elementary afterschool program was still not as strong as he wants it to be. He pointed out that many elementary school children go home to television and, in some cases, even pathology. He noted that some people just "can't ask for assistance" even if they need it. "Not everyone can afford piano lessons," said Mr. Mirzoeff.
Dr. Inserra commented that he feels the afterschool program should be looked at more carefully, with more stakeholder involvement.
Mr. Mirzoeff complained about the money included in the budget for the hiring of the equivalent of just under ten new teachers, believing instead that "we should be doing more with less people."
Alan Baer is concerned because he feels that not enough money is being spent on capital expenditures, given the conditions of the district's facilities. Referring to the fact that the board's largest cut in the architect's recommendations for capital expenditures was in the area of roofs, he noted that the costs of repairing deteriorating roofs becomes progressively more expensive over time.