by Cara Latham

Teacher’s aides and employees paid by stipends may be targeted for cuts, and student-athletes may be reusing their jerseys a little longer than usual.

These are just a few of the cost-saving measures that may appear in this year’s WW-P School District budget. At the February 23 meeting, officials presented all the areas they have targeted for cuts since 2003 in an effort to show that the district’s custodial and maintenance staff were not the only members of the WW-P community feeling the pinch of the tough economy.

But with the state targeting more cuts to state aid and about $800,000 that the district will have to send to the newly approved Princeton International Academy Charter School, the district is still facing fiscal challenges, officials said.

The presentation was part of the board’s latest budget discussions. The district continues to crunch numbers while waiting for state aid numbers, and other factors that will impact the budget.

But because of state deadlines, the board has scheduled a special meeting for Thursday, March 18, for adoption of the budget. The board’s meeting on Tuesday, March 23, has been canceled as a result. A public hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, March 31.

According to Larry Shanok, assistant superintendent for finance, there were about 2,200 students in the kindergarten through third grades, with roughly 55 teachers, in the 2002-’03 school year. Since then, that number has grown to 4,700, but there are now 51.7 teachers, which represents a decrease of 3.33 full-time equivalents, despite the spike in the student population.

In addition, the district reduced the number of instructional assistants by 17 in those grades during that time.

The district is again looking to reduce the number of aide positions, which has been a directive from both the state and county, which said that “indeed, the district must be reducing its teaching aides,” Shanok said.

In the area of co-curricular activities, costs rise each year because the stipends for employees who lead extra-curricular activities go up. But the athletic director was able to keep stipends flat over the last year. Now, though, the district is looking at reducing the number of long-distance trips sports teams take. It will also cut back on uniform replacements and reduce the number of employees who receive stipends. “There is a sacrifice to keep the costs flat,” said Shanok.

And despite the school population increase and the need to expand health services and guidance departments, there has only been an increase of .06 full-time equivalents in health services and one full-time equivalent in guidance. The district has instead re-aligned its staff and services to accommodate the increase in the number of students.

The district is looking to decreasing the number of supervisory positions in professional development by three. “We’ll get some significant savings in that area of the budget,” Shanok said.

And with advances in technology and the availability of automation at the administrative level, the district has decreased the number of administrators by two and the number of secretaries by 18 since 2003. The central office saw the reduction of an accountant and a human relations position during that time, Shanok said. This year, the district is targeting a decrease of two positions as a result of attrition.

In operations and maintenance, there has been a decrease of one position between 2003 and 2009. That department, Shanok said, “has not seen a lot of change up to now,” and the district is looking at a “potential realignment of services” for next year. This is a reference to the bid specifications sent out by the district, which is considering outsourcing the work to a private company to save money (see story on this page).

In transportation, the district has decreased the number of in-house drivers by 11 since 2003 but is not targeting any decreases for this year. Rather, it will be realigning the bus routes, which may mean that students will be on the buses longer. Shanok acknowledged that some parents may be opposed this change, but said that “our bus rides are not particularly onerous” as is, and the move could save money.

With regard to employee benefits, the district saw an 11 percent increase in costs for prescription benefits in July, as well as a 25 percent medical benefits increase in January. Shanok said it is still unknown what is in store for July, 2010, and January, 2011.

The district has been able to obtain Clean Renewable Energy Bonds, as well as grants and rebates to put toward its capital outlay costs, including a solar rebate it received in 2004, Shanok reported. Officials are anticipating no change for the 2010-’11 school year.

The overall number of grants increased from $1.04 million to $1.9 million since 2003, but that number is expected to remain flat for the upcoming year, said Shanok.

In the area of debt service, the district obtained an AAA bond rating and re-funded its debt to decrease debt service from $11.9 million in 2002-’03 to $10.6 million this year.

David Aderhold, assistant superintendent for pupil services and planning, explained the district’s new process for continual improvement, which will be tied to the district’s strategic plan. Over the past year, many ideas for cost savings have been presented at school board meetings, in E-mails from residents to district officials, and in meetings with district officials, including the superintendent.

To set those ideas into motion, a process has been set up that will remain inclusive and collaborative, Aderhold said. District officials will review the potential impacts to instruction of each viable idea. If the impacts to instruction cannot be determined, the idea will be dropped.

An action plan will then be created with a time line and dollars attributed to the plan. “The action plans must be grounded in an identifiable academic purpose,” said Aderhold.

As Shanok explained, a new state formula approved a few years ago calculated that West Windsor-Plainsboro should have received $22.6 million in state aid.

However the state only provided $10.7 million of that funding, which was further reduced by $624,000 last year. The school district was just alerted that $2.9 million more was being withheld from the remaining payments this year. Governor Chris Christie announced last month that districts in need may be able to offset that reduction by using excess surplus. But, Shanok said, “excess surplus” is really the money districts use to offset their taxes in subsequent years.

Now the state is telling districts to make up for the lack of funding in other areas before taking from the “excess surplus,” Shanok said.

Even more troubling for WW-P officials is that there are still no state aid numbers available for 2010-’11, and estimates range anywhere from flat state aid to a reduction of 15 percent, Shanok added.

Debbie Baer, the president of the West Windsor-Plainsboro Education Association, said the kinds of cuts being made to the education system at the state level would discourage people from wanting to become teachers. “We do an exceptional job here with moderate money,” she said. “People should be modeling after us.”

The financial outlook for the upcoming school year has been painted as grim from the beginning of the process, as board members described a 3.4 percent increase in the 2010-’11 budget without any additions to current services.

In preliminary discussions in January, administrators estimated at least a $7.6 million gap without any reductions.