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School Board Approves $62.3 Million Budget; 3 Faculty Jobs Are Cut

Candace Braun

Although Board members unanimously voted to approve next year's $62.3 million budget for Princeton Regional Schools, many parents voiced concern at a recent School Board meeting about where spending cuts were made.

A total of three teaching positions were cut from elementary schools and the bilingual program. These were eliminated because of a decrease in class size over the last few years, said Superintendent Claire Sheff Kohn at the March 30 meeting.

Of the proposed budget for 2004-05, $46.2 million is seen affecting property taxes in Princeton. If voters pass the budget, Borough property taxes will increase 10 cents, to $1.56 per $100 of assessed valuation, and seven cents in the Township, bringing taxes up to $1.43.

Over $2.4 million was cut from the budget to bring it under the state-imposed budget "cap." Those cuts include $1.17 million in capital improvements, $644,152 in fixed assets, $398,328 in salaries and benefits, $133,033 in special education costs, and $41,400 in curriculum and instruction costs.

The district was able to save $73,742 of the special education costs by bringing a pre-school special education program into the district. One position in the business office and one construction logistics specialist position were already eliminated from the budget this year.

The district also had state aid increases of $107,105 for the upcoming year, with a total of $3.5 million in state aid.

Susan Falcon, the parent of a third grader at Community Park Elementary, said she is disconcerted over hearing the school may lose a "strong and capable" faculty member due to budget constraints.

"When enrollment goes down, we reduce staff," said Dr. Kohn, citing statistics that show Riverside Elementary anticipates an enrollment of 311 students for the upcoming school year, down from 344 students in the recent past.

The superintendent assured parents that faculty members are assisted in finding new positions: "When we are forced to let somebody go, we look elsewhere in the district to see if there's somewhere else for them."

Statistics provided at the meeting by Board Administrator Stephanie Kennedy showed that the average projected class size for most grade levels next year will be 19.2 students in grades kindergarten through third, which is in the optimum range according to the state. The average is also well below the maximum ratio, which is 25 students to one teacher.

Class sizes are projected to range from 15 students in the third grade at Johnson Park Elementary, to 24 students in the third grade at Riverside Elementary.

Bilingual Programs

Other parents showed concern over cuts made in the English-as-a-second-language/bilingual program in the district. Maria Juega, a member of the district's Minority Education Committee, said the reduction in ESL staff members could hurt the district's efforts to close the minority achievement gap.

Dr. Kohn said that the number of students enrolled in the program has dropped, possibly due to more closely monitored U.S. immigration. For this reason, the number of faculty members has been reduced.

The high school will have the highest number of ESL students next year, with 31 students registered for the fall. Littlebrook Elementary will have the lowest enrollment, with 14 ESL students.

Ms. Juega's concern was that one staff member was dropped from the high school, and more individualized attention is needed to work with the number of students there.

Next year, the district will have five teachers for approximately 71 ESL students in the district.

Budget Costs

Major expenditures that have contributed to the 2004-05 budget include an increase of 15 percent in maintenance and facilities expenses, which rose $365,237 this year, and a 15 percent increase in transportation costs, up $260,769 this year. Other increases include special education, up 9.7 percent, or $557,955 from last year, along with smaller increases in instruction, salaries and benefits, and costs associated with the Charter School.

Maintenance costs include the $750,000 the district pays PSE&G each year for electricity, mentioned Board member Joshua Leinsdorf.

General fund revenue is up 4.5 percent from last year, along with a debt service tax levy, which is up 7.8 percent from last year.

A total of $1.9 million will also be set aside for maintenance, which includes roofing, data wiring, and cabling at the high school, asbestos removal at the Valley Road building, playground repairs, and handicap parking at the middle school. This money will not affect taxes, as it was already put aside for these projects, said Ms. Kennedy.

A total of $800,000 was also taken out of the capital reserve for furniture and fixtures at the elementary schools and middle school.

Voters will make the final decision on the budget when they pass or reject the amount on April 20. Polls will be open from 4 to 9 p.m. Sample ballots mailed to residents will indicate the locations for voting.

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