Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 12
 
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
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67 Percent Dilemma: School Board Hears Dire Budget News

Ellen Gilbert

“This is education and people’s lives,” said Superintendent Judy Wilson as she described the negative impact of Governor Chris Christie’s recent budget cuts to New Jersey school districts. At a special budget workshop last week, Ms. Wilson went on to lead a somber Board of Education through the implications of receiving 67 percent less money in state aid this coming year.

“We’re quadrupling our press for additional sources of revenue,” said Ms. Wilson, as she described an already-existing $3.4 million shortfall, now compounded by the prospect of $3.7 million less in state aid.

The district’s proposed budget for the coming year (July 2010-June 2011) is predicated on a property tax increase at the four percent cap allowed by law. Board Secretary Stephanie Kennedy said that because of recent revaluations, said she did not yet have precise numbers on what this would represent to Borough and Township homeowners.

A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held on Thursday, March 25, at 7 p.m. in the John Witherspoon Middle School cafeteria. An April 20 election will determine whether or not it passes muster with residents.

Possible cuts in personnel cited at last week’s workshop include the elimination of five teachers in the high school, three in the middle school, and 11 in the elementary schools. Summer school and after-school programs, stipends for assistant coaches and athletic programs, non-athletic stipends, kindergarten orientation, and each department’s supply budget would all be subject to cuts under the proposed budget, and a “curriculum reduction” would be implemented. Representing the Minority Education Committee, Chair Fern Spruill conveyed that group’s concern that program cuts may impede the effort “to continue to close the achievement gap.”

The Board voted to rescind an $800,000 ROD (regular operating district) grant that had been submitted to support roof and window repairs at John Witherspoon Middle Shool, although, Ms. Wilson noted, “it’s bad practice to go into deferred maintenance.”

Board member Rebecca Cox sounded a more positive note by pointing out that there was still aid for special education.

While the proposed cuts “have flexibility” in how they are implemented, Ms. Wilson said, “numbers aren’t flexible.” She and School Board President Alan Hegedus noted more than once during the evening that any cuts made now could not be restored in the future. They also emphasized the far-reaching implications of the cuts. “You don’t lose for a single year, you lose for years to come” said Ms. Wilson, who described her reactions to the governor’s plans as “outraged sadness and everything in-between. They’re solving a major fiscal crisis on the backs of public education.”

Ms. Wilson expressed the hope that people would not take the fact that class sizes are not being doubled as an indication that everything is okay. She also noted that she and “several others” had voluntarily opted for a flat contract for the coming year.

In an effort to resist “the march to mediocrity,” Mr. Hegedus observed, Princeton has historically chosen to spend more on education than other New Jersey districts. Ms. Wilson concurred, saying that “an adequacy budget has never been our goal.”

The proposed budget, Mr. Hegedus said, diminishes “programs and services built over the last decade and is steep and sweeping. These are big numbers; we’re not talking about one or two field trips being cut.”

A lone dissenting voice was heard at the end of the meeting when an audience member who asked not to be identified said that there is evidence that the amount that a district spends is not necessarily correlated to school achievement. She asked the Board to “consider what can be done to reduce the budget even more.” An article in next week’s Town Topics will look at the group “Citizens for Successful Schools” (cssnj.org), who examine struggling districts like Trenton, and suggest that rather than large infusions of money, curriculum changes and restructuring are the keys to success.

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