Robbinsville High School. (Facebook photo.)

Members of the Robbinsville Township Board of Education thought they had put the process behind them when they approved a budget March 18 that included a reduction in taxes for residents.

They were wrong.

Two days later, the state Department of Education rejected the budget, saying it did not include enough of a contribution from Robbinsville’s taxpayers. So, the school district administration and the school board went back to the drawing board, combing through line items to find ways to stabilize the district while not asking too much of residents.

They presented the result during a special Board of Education meeting April 2: a budget that would satisfy state mandates by raising the tax rate 1.64 percent. Counterintuiatively, this would equal a $14 decrease in taxes compared to last year for the averaged assessed home valued at $375,000. The funny math is thanks to an increase in assessed valuations for the township, district officials said.

The school board was scheduled to meet again to approve the final budget April 29, which was after press time. It was expected to pass without issue.

The proposed 2019-20 tax rate is actually the same one originally approved by the board April 2018 for the current school year. That rate was subsequently reduced in the summer after Gov. Phil Murphy surprised the district with an extra $3.5 million in state aid.

State aid increased again this year, with a half million more dollars for the Robbinsville School District. District officials—while grateful for the increase—said it isn’t enough to fully satisfy the schools’ needs and ease the burden on residents created by a history of underfunding.

Foster said the state still underfunds Robbinsville by 37 percent based upon its own formula, despite the recent increases in funding. In the 2017-18 budget, Robbinsville received $2.5M in aid. Today, that number is $7.3M.

Coincidentally, board members blame the state for Robbinsville’s budget snafu. Board of Education president Jane Luciano said during the April 2 meeting that the Murphy administration released state aid numbers a week late, but did not provide guidance on the changes for this year nor additional time for school districts to ask questions. The result was districts had to jump straight into creating a budget, the state deadline looming.

“We had to crunch in all of our meetings in order to put a budget on the table,” Luciano said. “DOE decided, ‘We’re not going to train the BAs this year. We’re just going to give it to them.’ There was no training…We really did not know until we went to submit the budget.”

That was unfortunate for the district, as Robbinsville Schools business administrator Beth Brooks said the state introduced several changes for this year that altered the way DOE looked at local school budgets.

The largest factor was a 6-percent increase in the state’s estimate for what Robbinsville should spend to educate a student. This increase was the driver, Brooks said, to a jump in what the state calls “an adequacy budget.” The adequacy budget is, in short, a number determined by the state for what it thinks would be the necessary funding level to provide an adequate education for every pupil in a given district.

From there, the state calculates the local share, or what it believes the local school board should be able to raise via taxation. The state calculates the required local share based on a district’s property and income wealth. Between last year and this year, this number for Robbinsville increased by $3.8M. During the April 2 board meeting, Brooks said she did not know how the state landed on such a large increase. She reached out to DOE to find out why, but no one from the state ever answered, she said in an April 26 email to the Advance.

But state rules say that a district’s minimum tax levy is the lesser of the last year’s tax levy or the state’s calculation of required local share. For Robbinsville, the lower number is the tax levy approved by the school board in April 2018.

The changes create a lack of wiggle room that could make budgeting in the future problematic, especially if the township school board wants to provide tax relief. Salaries and benefits—which increase annually—represent almost 75 percent of Robbinsville Schools’ budget. This, coupled with a state formula that links state aid with local residents’ contributions, means the district has little say in how to spend the bulk of its money.

Still, the district found ways to get creative this year. The budget added three new full-time employees for next school year: a reading specialist, an elementary school teacher and a high school chemistry teacher. It also hired a firm to conduct random drug testing of students at Robbinsville High School, starting in September. (The district was scheduled to hold an informational session on the new drug testing program April 29, prior to the Board of Education meeting.)

Foster also said the district will slash student activity fees in half next school year, after feedback from parents. A $100 fee this year would cost $50 in 2019-20.

“We hear from the public that the activity fees have become a burden, so we’re reducing the fees in half,” Foster said during the April 2 board meeting. “We had a great debate: do we get rid of them? So, I think we’re going to see how that works for us by reducing them.”

It may be a start, but many on the school board had banked on reducing the tax rate. Tax relief has been a hot-button issue in town for months, particularly since Murphy increased aid to the district in July 2018. It dominated board meetings over the summer and extended through much of a heated of the Fall 2018 campaign for school board. All the winners in the 2018 election—Shaina Ciaccio, Vito Galluccio, Craig Heilman and Lisa Temple—wanted to explore lowering taxes. Ciaccio, Galluccio and Heilman all listed tax fairness or tax relief as a priority during their campaigns, while Temple said the board should explore the opportunity to reduce the tax levy as state aid continued to increase.

The discussion continued into the budgeting process this spring, with the board finally landing on a small tax decrease. It was the first time in more than a decade the tax rate didn’t increase or remain flat.

With the state’s rejection of the initial Robbinsville budget, residents and board members expressed frustration and anger that hours of debate had been for naught.

But, in the end, the board has come around to the idea that the budget revision process would prove to be a benefit for the district going forward.

“I spent most of last week thinking I wasted 10 hours that I was never going to get back,” Luciano said during the April 2 board meeting. “But, upon reflecting on it, I think we have a much better budget. We have taken fat out of lines to put into the classroom.”