Amid a mixed crowd of supporters of the WW-P school district’s $158.55 million budget, and its opponents who said the budget vote was a mandate to cut taxes, the West Windsor Township Council voted to trim $503,000 from the spending plan.
The cuts were proposed by WW-P school officials themselves, who made a presentation to the West Windsor Township Council on May 9 and will make the same presentation to the Plainsboro Township Committee on Wednesday, May 11.
If Plainsboro agrees to the cuts, a special meeting will be held on Tuesday, May 17, where the WW-P school board will vote to change the tax levy amount. This will enable the school district to have its revised budget to the county superintendent by the deadline on Thursday, May 19.
Because the budget was defeated on April 27, state law required the townships to review the school budget and agree on a tax levy by the deadline. Officials in both townships are able to suggest where to cut or where the district should budget more revenue. They could decide to keep the budget as is, cut it, or even increase it, though that would be unlikely. While the governing bodies can make suggestions for places to cut, what they have to agree upon is a revised tax levy amount.
While Plainsboro voters passed the budget, 521-481, West Windsor voters had enough "no" votes, 1,120-992, to turn it down, for a total vote of 1,601 "no" votes to 1,513 "yes."
In voting to accept the $503,000 in cuts, most council members in West Windsor said it was a balancing act to save taxpayers money, but also to ensure education would not be harmed. They also called on school officials to do a better job next year.
"There has to be a balance," said Councilman George Borek. "I’m happy with what the school board has put forth, but we need to do it better."
Among the cuts was a $235,000 reduction in non-personnel school expenses, which includes teaching supplies, media center materials, and funding for student participation in national competitions, which would result in higher parent contributions to those trips, said Superintendent Victoria Kniewel, who made the presentation.
Kniewel said the school district subsidizes up to $150 per student to attend national competitions, but that practice would have to end under the cuts.
Kniewel said the reduction would most likely result in the district choosing to forego hiring a replacement for one of the guidance counselors who is leaving and also cause a restructuring of the department.
This aspect of the cuts, along with the cuts to national competitions, struck a chord with residents who supported the original budget.
Douglas Larkin, of Penn Lyle Road, said the district already cut Outdoor Education program last year, and parents and members of the PTA had to raise money to offer the program. Making cuts, and having parents shoulder the burden, is "agreeing to tax one segment of the population," he said. "Public education is everyone’s responsibility."
He also said that the amount of money that was cut is "far less than the money we’ve had to set aside for PIACS," he said, referring to the school district’s requirement to send $1.2 million to the Princeton International Academy Charter School (PIACS), which will open in September and draw students from the WW-P, Princeton, and South Brunswick districts. "We are also a district that other districts look to see what they can aspire to be," he added.
"If our school district’s reputation goes down,so will our property values, and so does the tax base," said resident Susan Roy. With regard to cutting guidance counselors, she asked, "Is that really the solution we’re looking for?"
In addition, Kniewel said the district would cut $30,000 from athletics, and reduce its capital expenses by $108,000. That cut would result in reductions in technology purchases and carpet replacements.
"We are trying to follow the advice and direction of the finance committee," Kniewel told the council.
Kniewel said that when they made their recommendations, school officials considered responses from the community forums held over the winter, where residents, students, and other community members said they wanted WW-P to avoid making any cuts that would affect the classroom.
"We believe we are a cost effective, high-performing district," said Kniewel.
Some residents, however, said the fact that the budget has been defeated for the first time in over a decade is a sign that residents cannot sustain the current system and its costs.
"Desperate times call for desperate measures," said Rebecca Esmi, of Woodmere Way. She said other entities around the country and around the region are also cutting back on expenses. "Hopefully clear heads will prevail."
"When you have great schools, another benefit to the taxpayer is the value of your home is maintained," she said. But if those taxes become "too exorbitant," and it is keeping people out of the community, it is a bad sign, she said.
One Village Road West resident said that in most institutions of higher education, there have been salary freezes, 15 percent contributions to healthcare from employees, and other cuts. "This is being replicated is most places of the country," he said. He said budgetary restraint does not have to mean layoffs.
The failed budget is "an indicator that our residents have reached the conclusion that our current situation cannot be sustained," he added.
Resident Ed O’Mara said he also felt more money could be cut from the budget and that, like many other seniors living in West Windsor, his income is reliant upon social security, which has been frozen for two years. Yet, the cost of his own healthcare premiums and his taxes have gone up.
He said he felt the "school board got suckered by the union" when the union agreed to a salary freeze for six pay periods in turn for a contract extension of one year that called for a 3.38 percent increase in salary. He said he thought the district would have been able to save a lot of money if it looked into freezing salaries and asking for more healthcare contributions.
Resident Pete Weale said that "$500,000 is not even close" to what should have been cut. "I’m looking for a minimum of $10 million," he said.
He also referred to the salary increases over the last three years. "This is completely off the wall," he said, adding he also wanted to see cuts of three central office positions and great contributions from staff toward health insurance.
Roy, and other supporters of the budget, said however, that education has been the main priority for the community. "I absolutely disagree with the statement that the defeat of the budget is because the townspeople could not sustain the current situation," said Roy.
She said she has talked to most residents of the township who assumed that because the budget passed every year, that it was safe, and they did not bother going to the polls. Those community members had been "lulled into a false sense of complacency." They did not expect their neighbors would "put other priorities ahead of our schools," she added.
Two brothers, Jesse and Jeff Yu, and students in the WW-P school district, urged the council to maintain the quality of education in the district.
Jesse Yu said his teachers have had a big impact on his life. Many hold graduate and doctorate degrees and could have taken their expertise elsewhere for more money. Yet, they chose to teach in WW-P, he sad.
"That’s the smallest they receive for what they do," he said. He also referred to the township’s population, which grew by 20 percent over the past decade. "If it’s going up, it means there is something here that people want."
Jeff Yu said the issue was more than just about numbers. When voters turned the budget down, the "well-being of the students in the district was put in the back seat," he said. "Let’s make sure we make it clear — in West Windsor, we value our students. In West Windsor, we put our education first."
But resident Bob Murray said that, despite the small voter turnout, "the people who voted, voted, and like it or not, we defeated the budget." Therefore, the only logical answer is for the council to cut it, he said.
Councilman Charles Morgan asked school officials a number of questions, specifically as they related to the surplus within the school’s budget, and whether there was any more that the district could squeeze to put back for tax relief.
While the general fund balance at the end of June, 2010, had just under $20 million, about $1 million makes up encumbrances — money the district has already spent, but because of billing and payment cycles, had not been paid. After that, there is about $8 million set aside to capital reserves — for capital expenses, maintenance, and emergencies.
The remaining $11 million is the surplus, of which the district is only allowed to retain, by law, $3 million, or one week’s worth of expenses. This is because the law restricts to keep no more than 2 percent of its entire budget for surplus. The remaining $8 million is used already for tax relief, they explained. Almost $6 million was used in the current 2010-’11 budget, and $2 million more will be used to offset a portion of the tax levy in the upcoming year.
Morgan also asked whether the district could track what he called "free riders," who move into West Windsor or Plainsboro for the schools, and then move out as soon as their students graduate. While the per pupil cost in WW-P is around $13,000, not all residents pay that much in school taxes, which means some of the other residents are paying for these families to send their children to school, he said.
"These folks are putting up our property taxes on our dime," he said. "We have a legal problem addressing it." However, he said, "it’s an opportunity to for cutting our taxes" if officials can figure out a way to get them to pay their full share. He acknowledged that study would need to be done, and officials might have to look to state officials or legislators to make a change. Still, he asked the board to look into what could be done.
With regard to the cuts proposed by the school district, he said during the meeting that it has been twelve years since he has been on council, and this has been the first time the budget was defeated. "That’s kind of a wake-up call," he said, noting, though, that some people voted for candidates but did not even bother voted either way on the budget.
"I don’t feel equipped to study this budget at the level this board and administration did," he said. Though, in the private sector, companies usually have a board of directors. That board sometimes directs the companies’ employees to make cuts. "Our voters are our board," he said. "Our board has directed we do something."
He took the example of the guidance counselor. When he was in high school, the guidance counselor’s job was to help students decide where to apply to college. Now, with technology, that need may be nonexistent, as students can access that information on the Internet, he said. "Do we have a system that is based today on an old system?" Morgan asked.
Borek said the world had changed over the past three years, but values do not change. At the township level, the council did not touch the core services it provides. "We haven’t reduced our senior center because we feel that’s a value to our community," he said.
"The pressures are tremendous right now, but do we sacrifice our children for the future?" he asked. "The school board has made some recommendations. We need to take those recommendations that they put forth."
He said he was hopeful a newly proposed healthcare reform bill, which would require all public employees to begin paying 30 percent of their healthcare, would help resolve some of the issues.
Councilwoman Linda Geevers echoed that sentiment, saying the bill "would be a major win" because it has the potential for saving the district millions of dollars. "I think we should look into areas for cuts outside of the classroom," she said.
"Are you comfortable that the recommendations and cuts will not affect the quality of education?" asked Councilwoman Diane Ciccone.
Kniewel said that everything has an impact. "Will we continue to grow and prosper no matter what? Yes," she added.
She said that officials had a short time to try to find areas to cut before the meeting. "If all these things were tied up very nicely in a bow, that would have been done a long time ago," she said. "We promise you we will work to mitigate any impact."
Kniewel also said that the cuts might not look exactly as they did on the PowerPoint she presented during the meeting, as officials will need to tweak it in the future to make it work within the district.
"I’m OK with the budget as is, or with minor cuts," said Council President Kamal Khanna. "Having said that, everything can be done better."
He said economic conditions are not getting any better, and new goals will have to be set as officials move forward. But, "I think the number one goal has to be to produce world-class students; everything else is number two to me."