If the average Princeton home owner could guarantee that all students at Princeton High School could have all the teaching they needed for a few dollars more on their annual property tax bill, would they begrudge the extra amount?
This was one consideration among many that came up when members of the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education (BOE) got down to the nitty-gritty with Superintendent Steve Cochrane and Board Secretary Stephanie Kennedy at a budget workshop last Thursday in advance of Tuesday night’s Board meeting.
The BOE was scheduled to vote on a tentative school budget that, if approved, could see local property taxes increase beyond the two percent cap mandated by the state. The increase is possible because the district is eligible for waivers due to increased costs of healthcare and rising enrollment. Although the vote took place after Town Topics press deadline, budget details were posted on the district’s website Friday.
“School budgets are not about dollars, they are about children; they are about balancing priorities,” said Mr. Cochrane at the annual workshop, which was open to and attended by members of the public and teachers.
The district’s goals, said Mr. Cochrane, included: maintaining class sizes in the face of rising enrollment; a fair and reasonable salary increase for all staff; and limiting the impact on tax payers.
“We budget as tight as we can on non-instructional items before we go to instructional items,” said Ms. Kennedy, who described the budget as “fluid,” constantly being adjusted and reviewed during a process that starts in fall and culminates in a tentative proposal for the annual budget workshop in March.
This year, she said, the Board had to decide whether to go above the state-mandated two percent cap on property taxes by means of two state-approved waivers: a health benefit waiver amounting to $413,110 and a rising enrollment waiver which would amount to some $1.7 million.
The district is eligible for the health waiver, which it last qualified for in 2011-12, because of increased health benefits costs. In that year, taxes also increased beyond the two percent cap to 2.85 percent. The district is eligible for the enrollment waiver because of an increase in the number of students. It is anticipated that 60 students will be added at the high school alone said Mr. Cochrane.
The enrollment waiver could be raised in its entirety during the 2015-16 tax year or over the course of the next three years. Ms. Kennedy advised that taking the entire amount in the first year might not be approved at the county level. Her recommendation was to apply the full health benefit waiver and a portion of the rising enrollment waiver, roughly one third of the $1.7 million that could be raised through the eligible cap adjustment. The money raised in the first year would be used to pay for textbooks (approximately $92,500), computers (approximately $92,500), and to hire three new teachers at the high school (approximately $240,000).
At the workshop, Ms. Kennedy sought direction from Board members as to their preferences with respect to balancing the budget. The pros and cons of various strategies were discussed at length along with the impact on taxes to Princeton homeowners.
If the tentative budget with the two waivers was approved at Tuesday’s meeting, the average homeowner with a property valued at $800,560 would see an annual increase in property taxes of $179 as opposed to an increase of $141 if the two percent cap was maintained. With both waivers in play, the tax levy would be 2.39 percent.
After Mr. Cochrane had described a list of new staffing requests amounting to $734,000 from Princeton’s school principals, Board member Patrick Sullivan wondered what the impact on taxes would be if the district were to add more of the items from the district’s “wish list.” What would be the impact of adding a teacher to the high school? A teacher with a health care plan was estimated to cost some $80,000, which would mean another three dollars on the annual tax bill of the average Princeton homeowner, taking the increase from $179 to $181. Board members differed as to whether they thought this would be acceptable to taxpayers.
Board member Tom Hagedorn, addressing Mr. Cochrane, said: “Our first obligation is to protect students and we appreciate your consideration of taxpayers but if there are real needs we should address them.”
According to BOE President Andrea Spalla, Mr. Cochrane, Ms. Kennedy and individual Board members would “welcome input from the public via email” in advance of their final budget approval vote scheduled to take place at a public hearing on April 28.
One member of the public questioned the district’s timeline. “Why is the vote on the final budget taken on the same evening that members of the public are invited to give public comment,” she asked, suggesting that the Board might benefit from public comment well before it has to give final approval rather than just prior to the vote.
Town Topics put this question to Ms. Spalla, who explained by email that the annual budget process and timeline “is based on key dates as set by state law and regulations.”
“Stephanie and her staff do an immense amount of work to develop the draft budget in preparation for the budget workshop, and many key dollar numbers (healthcare cost estimates, state aid amounts, charter school obligations, to name the biggest) are not even received by the district until late February or the first week of March,” she said. “Until those amounts are received and confirmed, Stephanie cannot begin the many analyses required for the Board’s budget discussions. Thus, our budget workshop — which has to happen before tentative budget approval — could not have occurred any earlier than this past week.”
“The deadline by which tentative budgets must be approved by the Board and then submitted to the Executive County Superintendent is March 20,” she continued, adding that members of the public are welcome to offer suggestions to Ms. Kennedy, Superintendent Cochrane and BOE Members before the budget is submitted to the county for approval on that date.
Members of the public have six weeks to review and comment on the budget before it is finalized by the Board on April 28.