After District Passes Budget, Voters Are Left to Decide
The Princeton Regional Board of Education unanimously passed its $67 million budget for the 2005-2006 school year following a public hearing last week. The budget will now be presented to residents for a vote on April 19.
"Hammering out a budget has been tough," Finance Chairman Alan Hegedus said at the hearing. He explained that due to a 40 percent increase in building space this year following expansion of the four elementary schools and middle school, an increase in expenditures was expected.
"We've known this is coming and this is the year we have to provide for it," he said.
Another factor influencing the district's 2005-2006 budget is the state's new bill, S-1701, which has caused the district to pinch pennies and has resulted in $1.3 million in cuts, in areas such as instructional services and funding for non-profit organizations that have received much of their funding from the district in previous years.
Designed to provide tax relief, the new state legislation caps what a district can spend and what it can spend it on. By restricting the amount of surplus the district may keep, it forces the school board to cut existing programs and services to allow for funding for unforeseen emergencies.
Superintendent Judith Wilson told taxpayers that if this bill was not passed by the state this year, all the needed funding for the district would have been included in the base budget, and there would have been no need for a second question.
If voters approve the base budget, taxes in the Borough will increase 5.29 percent, or $286 for the average Borough taxpayer with a home assessed at $348,989. Township taxes will increase 4.17 percent, or $248 for a home assessed at $418,097.
Also on the ballot will be the $1.9 million second question, which asks voters to approve additional funding for the school, in areas such as academic intervention and support, at a cost of $1.4 million; enrichment programs, at $247,000; and school security for the middle school and high school, at a cost of $180,000.
Voters may approve the base budget and vote against the second question, however Board members advised against doing so, as they said that many parts of the second question are key to the district's programming, including the already-established pre-school program at a cost of $215,000, which would provide programming for 72 pupils.
"There is not one component of the second question that does not impact student life," said Ms. Wilson. "With a minimal investment it reaches far into the needs of the district."
The supplemental budget also addresses the Title IX lawsuit filed earlier this year by parents of female athletes at the high school. Included in this budget is $150,000 that would be used to fund field upgrades at the middle school and high school, including the John Witherspoon softball field.
If the second question is approved along with the base budget, the average Borough resident's taxes will increase an additional $208, up to $1.72 per $100 of assessed valuation of land. Township taxes will increase another $228, up to $1.54.
Ms. Wilson introduced the budget to voters, reminding them that the Board has been working on the budget since October, and has tried to balance educational needs with taxpayer's concerns.
She also told residents that with new programming for the community starting up at John Witherspoon Middle School's pool at the end of March, the district should begin to see increasing revenues coming into the district that will hopefully offset other costs.
However despite the district's thorough explanation of why taxes will increase this year, several residents at the meeting were still upset by the numbers.
"For the first time my wife was expressing fear that we wouldn't be able to pay our tax bill," said Owen Leach, a Borough resident, adding that many of his neighbors shared the same concerns.
Mark Freda, also a Borough resident, told the Board that if the tax rate continues to increase at the same rate over the next eight years, it will be double what it was in the 2002-2003 school year.
"You really have to look at how many people we're forcing out of this town," he said. "What benefit is such a great education if you can't live here?"
Ms. Wilson interjected that budgetary concerns are statewide this year, and that the new legislature is taking its toll on every school district.
"I do not believe there is a district in New Jersey that isn't experiencing the same issues that we are," she said.
More information on the district's 2005-2006 budget, along with polling locations for the April 19 elections, is available in a newsletter that is being sent to homes this week, as well as on the district's Web site.