Emotions ran high at the special public meeting of the board of education held June 28 to cut $3.6 million from the first failed budget of $108,813,333. Reductions had to be made to bring in a state mandated contingency budget in an amount of $105,124,622. The state law reads that the contingency budget is capped at the lesser of (1) the results obtained when computing 120 percent of the consumer price index (CPI), or (2) four percent over the prior year's budget. In Port's case, the CPI formula was the lesser of the two.
However, some exclusions apply, like costs related to increases in student enrollment including pre-kindergarten enrollment, expenses related to court orders or judgements, capital expenditures including debt service (which added 1.9 percent this year for the construction bond approved four years ago) and emergency expenses necessary as a result of damage or destruction of a school building or school equipment.
This last exclusion was good news for the Manorhaven School community because the roof on the facility is in dire need of repair. The amount allotted in the failed budgets was approximately $500,000. Superintendent of Schools Dr. Geoff Gordon informed the audience that he will petition the state education department and see if they will issue a waiver to repair the roof because it affects the health and safety of the students and staff.
According to the state, "ordinary contingent expenses," with a few exceptions, are those deemed to be absolutely necessary to operate and maintain schools. The emphasis should be on those expenditures considered essential to maintain an educational program, preserve property and assure the health and safety of students and staff.
With this in mind, school administrators proposed the reductions listed in the sidebar, but not without much discussion and a lot of angst. Dr. Gordon said, "In my five decades in education, this is my saddest day." But with an eye to preserving academics and co-curriculars, the slashing was proposed. "We have to help taxpayers and reduce the budget over the long term," he said.
Increasing class size upset several speakers at the meeting. Dr. Gordon noted that after many years of discussion, the board had finally adopted a policy on class size. He also pointed out that the district is now facing major cutbacks in staffing, despite increasing enrollment. Schreiber High School Principal Jay Lewis said that there are 200 more students in the high school.
Working within the number of students in each class level, administrators suggested increasing kindergarten classes so that there were fewer increases in the fifth grade class size. This is due to the fact that important statewide tests are given in the fifth grade that the students have to be well prepared for.
Overall in the elementary schools nine sections will be cut, going from 113 sections to 104.
Cutting drivers education drew comments that unfortunately it affects students who may not be as financially well off as their classmates. Having young people who drive safely because they've been well instructed was also mentioned.
The elimination of late buses raised the inequity issue again, especially in families where parents are not available to pick up their children. But, the elimination of all clubs in the elementary school mitigates this somewhat.
However, speakers lamented the loss of the benefit of the after school homework club for youngsters. Pam Goldman noted that Port has usually tried to support working families.
Someone asked if parents could volunteer to run the clubs instead. However, the school district attorney thought this may have legal ramifications and is looking into it.
Dr. Gordon pointed out that kids involved in after school activities are less likely to get involved in "mischief."
But Dr. Gordon commented that busing is most essential for the day school, preferring "to keep teachers rather than buses."
Jay Lewis asked that as many electives as possible remain because "electives help college admissions."
Community groups that use the school facilities for non-school related events also voiced objections. However, legal counsel advised that if there is an identifiable extra expense (i.e. custodial time, wear and tear), these organizations, like PYA, PAL and CYO, must pay the amount. Only when there is no cost to the district can they continue to use them for free.
* The elimination of 13 middle school teams/intramurals brought some interesting debate. Most agreed that academics should take priority over sports, However Peter Wezenaar, who had an unsuccessful bid for a school board seat this May, thinks that the district should increase class size and put back sports. He also suggested reducing staff by moving one of the high school principals to the middle school,
* Frank Russo, a leader of the anti-budget group, commented that he thinks the cuts are "petty."
* Jim Ansel said that with some restructuring better cuts could be made without impacting the quality of education.
* However, Dr. Gordon countered that $3.6 million had to be cut in compliance with rules and policies.
* Messrs. Russo, Katz and Wezenaar, who ran for BOE seats this May campaigning strenuously against the budget, but lost, drew some sharp criticism because they left the meeting, which went past midnight, at about 9 p.m. "Those anti-budget forces should have stayed to see the aftermath of what's left," said one irate speaker.
* Speaking about the cuts in general, Dr. Gordon said, "It's a no-win situation." He doesn't want it to become a rancorous state of "us against them."
It's expected that the board will approve cuts and the contingency budget at its July 5 meeting.