Princeton school budget adopted despite many objections

The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education approved its $91.7 million operating budget for 2019-2020 during a contentious public hearing last week.

The budget was approved by the school board in a 6-4 split vote, following theĀ  public hearing on the evening of May 7 when parents called on the board to save the accelerated intervention specialist positions and at least one teacher’s job.

Those positions were among the elimination of more than 20 teaching and instructional assistant positions and five support staff and administrative positions. Some of the cuts were made through attrition, by not filling vacant positions.

School board president Beth Behrend and board members Betsy Baglio, Jessica Deutsch, Brian McDonald, Gregory Stankiewicz and Cranbury representative Evelyn Spann voted “yes” following the May 7 public hearing.

Board members Deborah Bronfeld, Daniel Dart, William Hare and Michele Tuck Ponder voted “no.” Tuck Ponder made it clear that she was voting against it because some of the positions that were being eliminated would hurt the most vulnerable students in the district.

The 2019-2020 operating budget of $91.7 million increased by $1.1 million over the 2018-2019 spending plan, or by 1.27 percent.

The 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 in the school district property tax.

The budget requires $78.2 million to be raised in property taxes to support the budget, or $1.9 million more than the 2012-019 budget. This is a 2.62 percent increase, which exceeds the 2-percent cap on the property tax levy. An exception is being made because of an increase in health insurance premiums.

The 2019-2020 budget eliminated more than 20 teachers and instructional assistants. This includes one teacher at the Littlebrook School, four accelerated intervention specialists – one from each of the four elementary schools – and three full-time teachers at Princeton High School.

Ten instructional assistants – two from each of the four elementary schools – also were let go, as were the director of communications and a high school building monitor. Stipends for teaching an extra period at Princeton High School also were cut, as well as the stipend for the athletic trainer.

Some vacancies will be left unfilled. This includes a teaching position at the Community Park School, a vacancy in human relations, the parent education and outreach coordinator and a secretarial position at Princeton High School.

The decision to cut positions stems from a very tight budget, school district officials said. There was an approximately $2 million budget gap – the difference between expenses and revenue – that had to be filled. This is the first time since 2010 that reductions in staffing had to be made, they said.

Rising enrollments combined with rising expenses – particularly in health insurance premiums – and a 2-percent cap on the property tax levy resulted in a difficult budget situation, school district officials said. The total value of taxable properties may increase year over year, but state law limits the property tax levy increase to 2 percent over the prior year’s tax levy.

The major cost drivers that led to the 3-percent reduction in personnel include an 8-percent increase in health insurance and prescription drug coverage. Overall, it represents 18 percent of the operating budget costs.

Salaries make up 59 percent of the operating budget. Over the past five years, salary increases have averaged 3.5 percent annually. The 2019-2020 budget earmarks $54 million for salaries, which is a $94,910 decrease over last year’s budget because of the staff cutbacks.

Another cost-driver is the 6 percent increase in tuition paid to the Princeton Charter School – from $6.1 million in 2018-2019 to $6.5 million for 2019-2020.

When the meeting was opened for public comment, several parents pleaded with the school board to save the jobs of the accelerated intervention specialists and that of Eva Genova, who teaches 2nd grade at the Littlebrook School.

One parent said the accelerated intervention specialist helped her daughter make great strides in her ability to read. Her daughter struggled with reading, but the extra help she received has made a difference, she said.

Other parents called on the school board to preserve Genova’s position at the Littlebrook School. When teachers such as Genova are let go, “it sends a dismaying message to all of us,” one parent said.

Another parent told the school board that it has some “clunkers” in the classroom who are teaching, and that “it’s a real shame” when the school board is in crisis, it cuts the newer teachers.

Martha Friend, who teaches in the Princeton school district and who said she grew up in Princeton, told the school board that it needs to know the full story behind every position before it makes cuts. The staff wants to be in partnership with the school board to help save money, she said.

After the public hearing was closed, Hare asked whether the school board had any options. The school board listened to many emotional pleas to save jobs, he said.

Interim Business Administrator Thomas Venanzi said the school board must act on the budget by May 14. If any changes were to be made, they would have to be documented in a motion to amend the budget, he said.

Behrend acknowledged that it was difficult to hear what the public had to say about the teachers, but the board’s job is to support the administration. It is not the school board’s role to delve into making changes at the last minute, she said.