How deep residents of West Windsor and Plainsboro will likely have to dig into their pockets next year in school taxes was unveiled at the West Windsor-Plainsboro school board’s meeting on January 25. The projections: a 4.9 percent increase from last year’s nearly $130 million budget.##M:[more]##

With details still being worked out, the 4.9 percent increase would bring the 2005-’06 budget to nearly $136.5 million. The includes $1.5 million for capital improvements projects (up from the last budget’s $1.2 million), a frequent topic of complaint at the public comment portion of board meetings by teachers, students, and parents. Last year’s budget increase was 4.3 percent.

Despite the increase, board members are optimistic that voters will find that it is a budget worth passing when they go to vote on Tuesday, April 19. “I’ve been impressed with (district superintendent) Robert Loretan’s handling of budgets these last couple of years,” says Henry Wieck, a board member from Plainsboro. “It still is an ongoing process, but we are moving along.”

Stephen Smith, chairman of the board’s finance committee, says he is pleased in this early stage. “The administration has put together preliminary data on head count and priorities on capital needs,” he says. “The information flow and sequence is well in hand.”

In order to help educate the public on the process the board will hold a detailed discussion on a specific aspect of the budget at each meeting. Capital improvements will be up for discussion at the board’s next meeting (on Tuesday, February 8, at 7:30 p.m. at Community Middle School).

“This is just a preliminary budget and we are still continuing to try to find savings,” says Linda Geevers, board member from West Windsor. “I think it will fall a bit, perhaps to 4.5 or 4.6 percent.”

At the January 25 meeting, Larry Shanok, the district’s assistant superintendent for finance, said that the district’s enrollment growth has begun to level off. Consequently no new full-time employees will be required at either middle school. In addition, a trimming of employees at the elementary schools will occur as enrollment declines. But there are expected to be approximately 100 more students at High School North next year and 30 more students at South so two new guidance counselors and three teachers will be needed at the high schools.

Special-education costs are a major concern for the budget, according to Shanok. Next year the district hopes to maintain the additional aides it hired for this school year and is investigating the possibility of additional in-district expenditures to reduce the cost of tuition for students sent out of the district for schooling.

Also under discussion, though not finalized, is a small expansion in the athletic department budget that would include the formation of a girls’ golf team as well as a fencing team. This would be funded by a shift of funds within the department budget, according to Shanok.

There are, however, some uncertainties remaining in the process, including planning for double-digit inflation in employee healthcare costs as well as expected salary increases for teachers. The board recently began contract negotiations with the West Windsor-Plainsboro Education Association (WWPEA), the district’s teachers’ union. The current contract ends in late June. Board president Hemant Marathe says that a resolution to the negotiations will likely not come until after the budget is finalized in late March.

How the increase will be divvied up between the two townships is still uncertain. Last year Plainsboro residents’ tax rate increased 14 percent while West Windsor residents had their tax rate decrease just under a percent, touching off a fire storm of controversy that now appears to be reaching a peaceful solution. (See story on page 1.)

The tax rate is determined by the state using a formula based on property values. Plainsboro is currently challenging the tax equalization ratios in state court, saying that they result in Plainsboro residents being taxed at a disproportionately higher rate than West Windsor residents. Plainsboro tax share is expected to increase again with the 2005-’06 budget, although district officials are expecting less of an increase than last year.

Last year Plainsboro residents had a 28.8 cent increase per $100 of assessed value for a tax rate of $2.303. In West Windsor residents received a decrease 1.7 cent decrease per $100 of assessed value for a tax rate of $2.553.

Bus Drivers File Grievance

For Larry Weinreb, president of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Service Association (WWPSA), it just wasn’t fair. As president of the union that represents 300 district employees, including two dozen bus drivers, he filed a grievance on January 7 after six bus driver positions — vacated due to retirement and attrition — were not filled by in-house drivers. Instead the routes were contracted out to private bus companies.

At the board’s January 25 meeting, it voted by a 5-3 margin to eliminate the staff driver’s positions and give the routes to private companies. “I wanted them to stay in-house,” says Weinreb. “We have capable substitute that could have done the job. It makes me nervous because if they are doing this because of the grievance, we have to worry about whether our jobs are in jeopardy.”

Bus routes can change for a driver on a yearly basis, while the position remains intact. In this instance the particular routes were contracted out and the district eliminated the vacated positions. “No driver lost their position as a result of this vote,” says board member Stephen Smith, who voted to eliminate the positions. “It was just a formal action.”

Henry Wieck, a board member from Plainsboro voted against the plan (along with Stan Katz and Bob Johnson of West Windsor). “There has been a kind of strategy the district has used to maintain an internal fleet of buses and the bus routes that are given out to bid,” he says. “Until that strategy is replaced by some other strategy, I hate to divert from it. This was brought up for a vote at the last moment as a reaction to a grievance that will go on any how. I voted against it because I thought it was the wrong approach. We didn’t have enough details to make an educated decision.”

Smith says the time was not right to fill the positions with in-house drivers. “The discussion had to do with a driver who retired and her routes were contracted out,” he says. “The administration did this and the union says they have the right to compete for these routes. But in order to do that the positions would have had to have been advertised and then a seniority bumping process would have occurred. It was impractical at this time (in the middle of a school year).”

But Weinreb says that he thinks the board has ulterior motives in making the change. “It seems to me that there is a slow privatisation process and they want to get rid of the in-house drivers,” he says. “To us, if we have people who can do the job, then why give it out to private contractors.”

The process involved with the grievance has five levels: an information meeting with the immediate supervisor, a written grievance with assistant superintendent for finance, a meeting with the superintendent, a meeting with the board and arbitration. All five levels are to be done in closed session. The district and association are at the second level. There is no time-line for completion of the process.

The grievance comes just three months after the approval of a three-year contract agreement between the union and the district.

Middle School

Report Delayed

Last October, after months of complaints by parents, students, and teachers, the board set up a committee to review the strengths and weaknesses of the middle school program. This includes the combination of language arts and reading into one class, the lengthening of academic periods and the reduction of study halls.

While the committee initially expected to present its findings to the board this month, that time frame has been pushed back to May, according to Victoria Kniewel, district assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “The process will be lengthy and more complex than we originally anticipated,” she said at the January 25 meeting.

A major point of contention is the support class called Literacy in the Content Area (in which teachers of all disciplines integrate literacy into their lessons). Last summer the board modified the program for eighth-graders but left it mostly intact for sixth and seventh-graders. The schedule currently combines literacy into regular classes five days a week for eighth-graders.

The committee has also studied exemplary middle school programs, creating a vision and an action plan and developing assessment data to ensure the program continues to improve.