Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 13
 
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
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Board Debates Tax Impact of Budget Squeeze

Ellen Gilbert

The Princeton Board of Education capped a lengthy discussion last Thursday by unanimously passing a proposed school budget that will have a tax impact of 3.9 percent on Township and Borough residents.

Noting that her power point presentation that evening will be available on the district’s website (www.prs.k12.nj.us/ ), Superintendent Judy Wilson presented the latest iteration of the proposed 2010-2011 budget, which had already changed from the one presented the week before. She noted that specifics would continue to be “in flux” during the coming weeks, and that the web version will be routinely updated, until election day, April 20, to reflect these changes.

Many of the points discussed at a budget workshop held the previous week were repeated on Thursday, with the additional news that the State had approved neither a waiver on the 21 percent increase in the cost of health benefits, nor the opportunity for residents to be asked a “second question” that might have provided for additional revenue on the ballot.

The budget presented on Thursday was based, Ms. Wilson explained, on an existing shortfall of $3.4 million, along with the loss of $3.7 million in revenue as a result of cuts to state support. The 3.9 percent tax increase will still result in a budget that is 3.54 percent, or $2.6 million less than last year’s, and “doesn’t begin to offset general revenue loss.” The dire fiscal situation is compounded, Ms. Wilson said, by the loss of revenue from interest on investments, the loss of per capita tuition from diminishing numbers of Cranbury students enrolled in the district, and Cranbury’s own severe budget cuts. “It was a beautiful partnership,” Ms. Wilson observed regretfully.

While PRS’s budgets have historically been informed by the goal of “excellence,” the theme of this year’s budget, Ms. Wilson reported, is “eyes on the instructional core. We must respond to the official formula guiding state aid to New Jersey,” she said, noting that Princeton’s tradition of “over-adequacy” and spending more than the median meant that it was now being more harshly penalized by the five percent cut the Governor has implemented in an effort to bring every district to a median spending level.

Ms. Wilson noted that parents should not be misled by the fact that class size will remain the same in the coming school year. The proposed loss of some 50 positions, including both professional and staff employees, she said “does affect the support of teachers and students,” as well as summer and after school programs, elective offerings, supplies in every department, and athletics. She anticipated cuts to the elementary schools’ world language program, as well as to art and music offerings for grades K through eight.

The district does not yet “know exactly whose contracts will be affected” by current union negotiations, Ms. Wilson reported. She also said that “central office administration has voluntarily taken a wage freeze,” and that several “exceptional” individuals have submitted their retirement paperwork early to help minimize the impact of the cuts.

“Your voices at the doors of legislators really matter,” Ms. Wilson said, citing a link on the district’s website for making contact. The State is still mulling over the details of a retirement plan that will take effect in August, she pointed out, adding that “legislators are realizing that they’re only adding to the unemployment ranks.”

Ms. Wilson said that the district may be creating additional “human resources” lines in order to hire fundraisers. And, she said, “there will be more outsourcing and privatization in the years to come.”

Finance Committee Chair Dorothy Bedford sounded a more temperate note by observing that “This is not a rude awakening,” but rather “an opportunity to rethink how we do business, from joint purchasing agreements, to changes in custodial time, to restructuring how we deliver services.” She added that “safety will be a primary issue in making athletic cuts.”

Board member Tim Quinn commended teachers for their “professionalization in continuing to work under difficult conditions.” Another Board member, Mia Cahill observed that “We have very little control over what happens,” and that “today may be the beginning of the end of excellence in the PRS system.”

Ms. Cahill read a statement from Board member Walter Bliss, who was not able to attend the meeting. Citing a lack of cooperation from unions like the Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA) and the failure of the district’s two charter schools to contribute to the District’s budget, Mr. Bliss suggested asking the Governor for an extension on the budget and tabling any layoffs until April 30. Ms. Wilson indicated that scheduling deadlines precluded any postponements.

“There’s never been a stronger opportunity to negotiate with unions,” observed Borough Council member David Goldfarb, who also praised Ms. Wilson’s “familiarity” with the budget and all the issues it entails.

A member of the audience who asked not to be identified noted that New Jersey’s five highest-achieving school districts spend less per capita than Princeton, and that the Board might learn by examining their budgets. “We’ve looked at them ad nauseum and they’re very misleading,” responded Board President Alan Hegedus.

It was noted that although Thursday was the last official meeting for Mr. Hegedus and member JoAnn Cunningham, both of whom have chosen not to seek reelection, their work would be celebrated at the Board’s April meeting.

Ms. Wilson encouraged residents to attend an April 13 public forum at the Princeton Public Library at which she, Library Director Leslie Burger, and others will discuss the impact of budget cuts on their respective institutions.

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