Princeton school board approves tentative budget

The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education approved the school district’s $91.7 million tentative operating budget for 2019-2020.

The budget was approved by a vote of 8-2 at the school board’s March 19 meeting.

School board members Daniel Dart and Michele Tuck-Ponder cast the two dissenting votes. A public hearing is set for the school board’s April 23 meeting.

The $91.7 million tentative budget, which must be reviewed by the Executive County Superintendent of Schools, increased by $1.5 million over the 2018-2019 operating budget of $90.2 million, or a 1.2 percent increase in overall spending.

School district officials struggled to close a $2 million budget shortfall. The district has been experiencing tighter budgets as the cost of living and student enrollment both are on the rise.

The result is the need to trim the number of staff – which totals 772 people – by 3 percent, which will be accomplished through a combination of retirements and resignations, school district officials said.

Some full-time and part-time positions were eliminated, as well as additional periods for which teachers might have been paid beyond their base salaries.

The overall 3-percent reduction in teaching staff also means class sizes may be larger and some elective offerings may be reduced, school district officials said.

“We took hard cuts across every area,” Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said.

“We will have to make cuts that affect every student,” Cochrane said, adding that the district’s priority is to “keep the high level of learning intact.”

The tentative operating budget calls for a 3-cent increase in the school district property tax rate – from $1.12 per $100 of assessed value to $1.15. For the owner of a house assessed at the town average of $838,562, this is a $264 increase. The school district property tax bill will be $9,643.

The amount to be raised by property taxes to support the budget will increase from $76.2 million for the 2018-2019 budget to $78.2 million for the 2019-2020 budget, or 2.6 percent. The district was able to exceed the state-mandated 2-percent cap on the tax levy because of an adjustment that is permitted to be taken for increases in health insurance premiums.

Additional sources of revenue include $5.1 million in state aid and debt service,  plus $5.1 million in tuition for Cranbury Township high school students to attend Princeton High School in a sending/receiving agreement. The township does not have its own high school.

The major cost drivers are an 8-percent increase for employee health and prescription drug premiums, and a projected 6-percent increase in tuition paid to the Princeton Charter School.

Special education costs also have increased, including tuition and transportation for special education students who cannot be taught in the school district and who are sent to special schools outside of the district.

School district officials pointed out that although the Princeton tax base – the value of all taxable properties – has increased in recent years, the 2-percent cap on the property tax levy is based on the previous year’s tax levy. It does not increase hand-in-hand with the growth of the tax base.

Tuck-Ponder, who voted against the budget, said the school board has talked about the difficulty in making cuts, but certain sacrifices need to be made. The board has also discussed making changes that will have long-term impact, she said.

Those changes will be opposed by many people in the community who have become accustomed to the “bells and whistles” in the schools, Tuck-Ponder said.

There are people who may believe that small class sizes is something that everyone wants, or that supplemental science need to be offered in elementary school outside of the classroom, she said.

“What we really value is having the extras that give our students a leg up,” Tuck-Ponder said.

But it is really necessary to offer 36 Advanced Placement courses when instead, fewer AP courses could be offered and the resources could be redistributed, she said.

Tuck-Ponder said her concern is that when cuts are made, they should not disproportionately affect the most vulnerable students in the district – minority students, special education students and those who belong to the lower socio-economic groups.

Dart and fellow school board member Debbie Bronfeld agreed with Tuck-Ponder.

The public does not “get it” – that to have a “better budget” and not to raise property taxes means some things may need to be done and that that they may not like it, said Bronfeld.

“I don’t think the public in our schools wants to hear that or deal with it,” said Bronfeld, who did cast a yes vote to approve the budget.

Dart said that many of the people that the school board is concerned about – students, staff and the community – are also “economically vulnerable” and may be hurt by the property tax increase in the budget.

It shows up in many ways, Dart said. It shows up when landlords increase the rent because of property tax increases. It is important to be compassionate toward those who are living on fixed incomes, he said.

“You can’t be all things to all people all of the time. You have to balance the needs of the students, the staff and the community and I don’t think this budget does that. I am going to be voting ‘no,'” Dart said.