The Princeton Public Schools Board of Education (BOE) voted last week to approve a tentative budget for the 2015-16 school year that would raise the property tax levy by approximately 2.4 percent, in spite of the state-mandated two percent budget cap. The vote was unanimous.
“The budget’s notable bright spots are no reductions to staff or programs because this year we qualify for two waivers that give statutory permission to increase taxes exceeding the two percent cap,” said Board President Andrea Spalla, who thanked Business Administrator Stephanie Kennedy for her work on the “complex balancing act” that is the schools budget.
The district is eligible for the two state-approved waivers as a result of increased healthcare costs and rising enrollment. The health benefit waiver amounts to $413,110 and the rising enrollment waiver of some $1.7 million.
The district last qualified for the health waiver in 2011-12 and was able to exceed the two percent cap that year also. The additional amount raised would be used to support health benefits for all district staff.
While the enrollment waiver would have allowed the district to raise the entire $1.7 million this first year, the BOE chose to spread the waiver over the course of the next three years. This year roughly one third of the $1.7 million would be raised through the eligible cap adjustment and used for textbooks, computers, and to hire four new teachers at the high school.
It is anticipated that 60 students will be added at the high school alone and the increase districtwide is expected to be about 100 students.
The tentative budget has yet to be reviewed by the Executive County Superintendent of Schools and may yet be revised before a final vote is taken after a public budget hearing on April 28. It proposes a total expenditure for the district of $89,668,832; taxes to be raised amount to $73,339,567, up from $71,629,433 from last year.
As a result, the owner of a home assessed at the town average of around $800,560 would see an annual increase in school taxes of around $179. School taxes comprise a portion of homeowners’ tax bill.
At last week’s meeting there were surprisingly few comments on the budget. Most of the individuals who came to the podium to speak during the public session addressed the ongoing teacher contract negotiations and urged the Board and the teachers to reach a resolution prior to the end of the school year.
The BOE has been embroiled in ongoing negotiations with the teachers’s union Princeton Regional Education Association (PREA) since their contract expired at the end of the 2013-14 school year. Both sides have been working with state-appointed mediator Kathleen Vogt since last December.
On February 17, they had a fourth session with Ms. Vogt, who has advised confidentiality throughout the process. A fifth session with Ms. Vogt is scheduled for April 9. In the interim, both sides have agreed to meet face to face without mediation on Thursday, March 26.
Perhaps responding to past accusations of intransigence on the part of the Board with respect to its negotiations with the teachers’s union, Board President Andrea Spalla said “Nothing is set in stone, the Board hasn’t drawn a line in the sand beyond which it refuses to budge, we are ready to work. She spoke of “compromise” and “positive steps that will lead us to a resolution.”
At last week’s meeting the Board was again criticized for what one individual described as its “lengthy inaction.” One parent, however, said that she was saddened by the “vitriol” against the Board. “This isn’t Princeton at its best,” she said, pointing out that, “they were elected by us and they deserve respect and commendation for the unpaid job that they do.”
The next meeting of the Board of Education will be Tuesday, April 28, at 8 p.m. Members of the public have just under five weeks to review and comment on the budget before it is finalized.
Ms. Spalla has said that she, Mr. Cochrane, Ms. Kennedy and individual Board members would “welcome input from the public via email” in advance of their final budget vote.