While voters are currently making up their minds whether to support the West Windsor-Plainsboro’s new budget (calling for a 4.6 percent increase), school officials are calling the proposed 2005-’06 budget lean, though not-so-mean.##M:[more]##

But with the recent property revaluation in Plainsboro more than doubling the assesssed value of the average home, some residents are in line for a whopping 20 percent tax increase while their West Windsor neighbors will only see a modest increase.

But district officials are hoping that voters will still support what they consider a reasonable increase in spending. “The budget could be tighter if we were willing to cut programs, but we are not,” says Stan Katz, board member from West Windsor and a member of the finance committee. “If we wanted to cut sports teams and clubs and things like that we could reduce the budget, but those are some of the things that help make us a top-rated district. I think we have done a good job at reasonable cost without reducing our offerings.”

The latest edition of the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district’s preliminary $136.2 million 2005-’06 budget was approved on March 8 by a vote of 8-0 (Patricia Bocarsly, currently running unopposed for reelection in Plainsboro, was absent).

The 4.6 percent school budget increase is largely due to an increase the costs of salaries and benefits. The district is also projecting a 2 percent increase in enrollment, compared to last year’s 4 percent. Also required is the hiring of three new teachers and two new guidance counselors for the district’s two high schools. The 2005-’06 spending plan also includes $9.8 million in state and federal aid, about the same as 2004-’05.

The budget carries with it a 4.6 percent increase over last year’s $130 million budget. This means that in West Windsor, the tax rate would increase 2.8 cents, from $2.54 to $2.57 per $100 of assessed value. A homeowner with a house at the township average of $239,"000 assessed value would pay $6,"166 in school taxes next year. This is a $78 increase over the this year.

In Plainsboro the tax increase gets a bit murkier. Because of the property tax revaluation last year by the township, the average assessed value of a home in Plainsboro has doubled in value, going up from $190,"700 to $395,"000. But district officials are quick to point out that residents taxes are not doubling. In fact, the tax rate will actually drop 87 cents, from $2.29 per $100 of assessed valuation this year to $1.42 in the new budget.

Nevertheless, the average Plainsboro homeowner will be paying significantly higher school taxes. An owner of a home assessed at the township average ($395,"000) would pay $5,"592 in school taxes next year compared to the $4,"392 the average homeowner paid this year (with the home valued at $190,"700).

But WW-P board president Hemant Marathe, a West Windsor resident, says that while some may see their taxes go up, others may be pleasantly surprised. “Each tax payer must figure it out for himself,” says Marathe. “To make a general statement is very hard. Plainsboro’s taxes have not gone up as much as they did last year. Some residents will see a significant increase while others will see a decrease.” (See related article, page 26.)

Despite the big increase, it could have been worse for Plainsboro residents. Following the settlement of Plainsboro’s school tax lawsuit against the state and West Windsor, Plainsboro officials have claimed that about $1 million in school tax obligations have shifted from Plainsboro taxpayers to West Windsor taxpayers. This is despite the fact that the settlement does not change the tax apportionment formula used by the two townships.

A side story to the creation of the new budget is that next year will likely be harder on tax payers in both districts than it has been in the recent past. S-1701, a law passed by the state last June, has put a 2 percent cap on surplus amounts that a school district may retain — last year it was 3 percent — while traditionally the district would keep a 4 percent surplus.

In order to reach the cap level the district has put nearly all its surplus during the past two years toward reducing the 2004-’05 and 2005-’06 budgets. But there will be no surplus to draw on next year and taxpayers will be asked to foot the difference. “We are not doing this out of choice,” says Katz. “This is an irresponsible thing for the state to do and it will create problems for a lot of districts.”

While school districts, along with the NJ School Boards Association and other groups, have protested the law, there seems little chance of repealing it. “We have been lobbying our assembly members (Linda Greenstein and Bill Baroni) but I think it will not happen,” says Marathe. “But it is very unfair to put a random limit on what people can keep as surplus.”

There will be a formal public hearing by the board on Thursday, March 24, at 7:30 p.m. at Community Middle School. If the budget is approved at that hearing, the district’s 2005-’06 spending plan would then go before district voters on Tuesday, April 19, as part of the school board election ballot.