While the WW-P school board unanimously passed a revised budget for 2011-’12 that township officials in both West Windsor and Plainsboro have approved, it did not come without tension between board members.
At a special meeting on May 17, the school board adopted the revision, which included $503,000 in cuts to the original $158.55 million budget, as recommended by school officials and accepted by the townships.
But Plainsboro school board member Todd Hochman openly criticized the process, saying he did not get a chance to contribute his opinions before the board recommended the $503,000 in cuts to township officials. His comments generated backlash from other members on the school board, who accused him of failing to take advantage of a number of opportunities to voice his concerns.
Government officials in both West Windsor and Plainsboro voted to accept the $503,000 in cuts proposed by the district earlier this month. The cut will reduce the tax levy from $140 million to $139.5 million.
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. 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 count of 1,601-1,513.
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.
There is also an $80,000 reduction in the guidance department, which will most likely result in the district foregoing hiring a replacement for a guidance counselor who is leaving and also cause a restructuring of the department.
In addition, the district will cut $30,000 from athletic and co-curricular stipends, reduce its support staff by $50,000, including the possible cut of a cafeteria aide, and reduce its capital expenses by $108,000. That cut would result in reductions in technology purchases and carpet replacements.
Hochman said that because voters turned down the budget for the first time since 1999, the board should have recommended more than just $503,000 in cuts. "The recommended cuts should have been much deeper, and I’m unhappy about this," he said.
He said he opened his board packet on May 5 to find the recommended cuts of $503,000. When he tried to call Superintendent Victoria Kniewel about it, he learned she was out of the district. He then talked to David Aderhold, the assistant superintendent for pupil services, and was "told that it was not a joke" and that the $503,000 was really what was recommended, Hochman said.
Then, both townships accepted the recommended cuts. Hochman said he did not publicize his feelings during the two meetings at both townships because he did not feel it was his place to speak at those meetings. "I was in a quandary as to what to do," he said. He then talked to an attorney at the New Jersey School Boards Association, who told him that the board could appeal the townships’ decision, but only to try to lessen the $503,000 in reductions made, a move he found to be "pointless."
Then Hochman said he was asked by board member Ellen Walsh to attend the Math and Science Day at Wicoff last week, where he watched kindergarten students learn about buoyancy and third graders learn about animals by having the opportunity to touch live exhibits, including a snake.
"Going to Wicoff made me remember why I’m on this board, and this is to make sure the children get a quality education," said Hochman. While he is still unhappy with the impact to taxpayers, he decided he was going to vote yes.
Prior to voting, however, other board members criticized Hochman for failing to provide specific recommendations during the process an then making negative comments about the process afterward. Board member Anthony Fleres said that when the budget failed, township officials asked the school board to come up with recommendations for cuts that would not harm the educational programs.
"Which programs would you have wanted to take out?" Fleres asked, to which Hochman said it was the responsibility of the school administration to come up with suggestions, and for board members to make decisions about those suggestions.
However, school board member Robert Johnson said that it was the job of the school board members to vet each program throughout the year and question spending for everything that is approved. "You had a full year to contribute" comments and suggestions to the board about areas to cut, said Johnson.
"There’s not a single item in the two years you’ve been on the board that you’ve said, ‘No, I want to take a look at that,’" he said, referring to individual items that come up year-round for approval.
He called Hochman’s behavior irresponsible, saying that Hochman’s responsibility as a board member is to "look carefully at the budget, look carefully at the spending," and make recommendations. "You were silent."
"There’s silence until there is a proposal, and then we get a ‘no’ vote," Johnson added. He said school board members get involved in the debate and make contributions to the discussion. "You don’t just sit back and say, ‘That’s not good enough.’"
Board President Hemant Marathe echoed Johnson’s sentiments, but also disputed Hochman’s claims that he was not provided with the opportunity to voice his opinion about the recommended cuts.
He said an E-mail was sent to every board member after the budget failed in the elections, asking him or her to send recommendations to the finance committee, which was tasked with coming up with the ultimate number to recommend to the townships.
"Nobody contacted the finance committee except one board member" not involved on that committee, Marathe said. "To not respond at all and then to come here to say you were not asked" is not fair to other board members, he added.
"You were repeatedly asked, and you did not respond," Marathe said.
Marathe also said that there was a tight time line for both townships and the school board to have to make cuts and vote, which they had to do before May 19.
Marathe took it a step further, saying that it was up to the townships to make the final decision on the cuts. "If the two townships had asked for $5 million, we would have given them $5 million," he said.
He said the board was asked, however, to make recommendations that would not hurt the children. Because the board had come up with its original budget, which school officials felt was the lowest they could go without affecting education in some way, it was impossible to avoid it entirely. "There is nothing in the $503,000 that won’t hurt a kid directly or indirectly," he said.
Hochman said he must have missed the E-mail messages sent to board members during the recommendation period.
Newly elected school board member Rachelle Feldman Hurwitz said it was clear that there is a "paradigm shift" on the local, state, and national levels, and not just in WW-P. She said she had a responsibility to her Plainsboro constituents to vote "yes" for the lower budget, but school officials need to take the opportunity to do better.
"We have to re-address and re-create the way we do our budget," she said. "We are no different than any other school board dealing with budget issues" while trying to maintain quality education, she added. "We have an opportunity to adjust and make those changes for our children without diminishing the quality of education."
Two residents spoke during the hearing, including West Windsor resident Pete Weale, who criticized the board for not taking suggestions from constituents in coming up with the cuts. "You’re very generous in spending my money to cover other people’s expenses," he said, referring to the health costs of the teachers and other employees, a larger portion of which Weale feels should be contributed by the employees themselves.
He said he was also frustrated with the process. "There’s a reason people are not here tonight," he said, adding that other residents feel that their comments do not matter and that the board will make its decisions regardless of residents’ input.
Meanwhile, Ramon Garcia, the president of the district’s support services union, said the support services staff was already made smaller by the district’s action last year to privatize its custodial staff. While the areas of the budget that face cuts are not set in stone (government officials only have to agree on the amount in the tax levy), he has been getting questions from union members about the reduction to staff, particularly the cafeteria aides.
He has heard reports that in the wake of the news of the cuts, building principals are already "lobbying teachers" to sign up for supervising students in the cafeteria, which will provide them stipends, he said. He said that would take money away from aides who could be paid to do that same job. "I don’t see any savings here," he said.
"I would hope we can save those folks because it’s important for the overall education" of the students in the district, he said.
Both Garcia and Weale also called on the district to forego replacing assistant superintendent Russell Lazovick, who is leaving WW-P to become the superintendent in the Nutley school district. They said his responsibilities should be divvied between existing central office staff for a savings in the district.