April 7, 2005
Scotch Plains-Fanwood BOE Officials Discuss Budget, Special Ed
By ANNA GITHENS Specially Written for The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times
SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ — Officials from the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education met Monday with The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times in response to last week’s editorial concerning the district’s proposed $67 million school budget and $58.7 million tax levy. (See: www.goleader.com/05mar31/05mar31.pdf)
The editorial expressed concerns over exploding school costs and rising property taxes, while making comparisons between the Westfield and Scotch Plains-Fanwood budgets and school enrollment numbers from 1995 and today’s figures.
Board of Education President Linda Nelson, Dr. Carole Choye, Scotch Plains-Fanwood Superintendent of Schools, and Anthony Del Sordi, Scotch Plains-Fanwood School Business Administrator, met with Times staff members to discuss a wide range of budget and enrollment issues – particularly the costs of special education and how enrollment figures are determined today versus 10 years ago.
Mrs. Nelson was particularly concerned with the editorial’s implication that the district could be “hiding” information, and wanted to make it clear that the district would provide any information that was needed on the district’s budget. (See Mrs. Nelson’s Letter to the Editor on Page 4).
The numbers cited in the editorial were questioned. The 1995 newspaper archive containing the school district budget statement was noted as the source and examined by the group. Mr. Del Sordi pointed out that the enrollment reporting procedures required by the state in 1995 did not list special education student enrollment as a separate item, as is required today.
The officials made reference to what they perceive as the danger of Senate Bill 1701, signed into law last summer, which reduces the amount of money school districts may keep as surplus funds for future emergencies. Following passage of the legislation, the school board was forced to transfer $478,822 out of surplus and into the revenue side of this year’s budget to offset property taxes.
Mrs. Nelson said it is hard to convince some critics that if school districts and educational communities speak of their opposition to S-1701, it may appear to be self-serving. School officials said the S-1701 legislation has a big impact on how school districts are able to develop their budgets for this year and for the next few years.
They agreed with the example provided in The Times editorial of a ticking time bomb that will explode next year after the general elections. Property tax increases will be impacted even further without infusion of funds to avoid huge tax spikes.
“Our concern is not that our spending is being limited, and our concern is not that we don’t want to bring property tax relief, because certainly we do; our concern is that it looks on the surface that S-1701 is helping but in time it will blow up,” Mrs. Nelson said. “What is going to happen, long term, is when it blows up, the schools will be blamed,” she cautioned.
“Basically, that ‘others’ (referred to in the editorial) really applies to the way our special ed students are now being reported in 2005-2006 versus the way they had to be reported in 2004-2005,” Mr. Del Sordi said. He noted that there were not as many special education categories back in 1995-1996 as there are today. The categories are growing – for example, the Autism program, which provides special education for children with Autism in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, did not exist in the district 10 years ago.
“The difference is a number of things; increased enrollment in regular and special education, and also we have children in school now that might not have been in school at the age of three in ’95,” said Superintendent Choye. “Medicine is wonderful, and it saved a lot of medically fragile children, so there are a lot more children in special ed,” she said.
The difference with the breakdown in the Scotch Plains-Fanwood budget between 10 years ago and now is that the reported 590 students classified as special education pupils in district for 2005-2006 are separated out from the full-time enrollment number of 4,500 for purposes of the state’s reporting. In 1995-1996, there were 87 students designated as “others.”
The 1995-1996 full-time enrollment number of 3,996 included those students classified as special education in-district. In comparing the full-time enrollment increase between then and now, it grew from 3,996 to 5,090.
School officials said many of the expenses are also un-reimbursed mandates moving children out of one category and into another category, and handled at a much more expensive rate, yet the federal and state government does not pay for it.
“The federal government indicated that they would be paying 40 percent of the cost of special education, and we now receive about 12 percent,” Mr. Del Sordi informed.
“Special education is a major cost driver, and what is defined as special education has changed a lot in the past 10 years,” said Mrs. Nelson. She also noted other cost drivers that have added to the rising budget, among them paying back the bond referendum from 2000-2001; the required elementary world language program (which is a non-funded mandate); keeping up with changing technology; the mainstreaming of students, which requires teacher aides in the classroom, assisted learning devices, occupational and physical therapy, medical evaluations, and the growth of special education summer programs.
Each child in special education is also required to have an I.E.P. (Individual Education Program), which requires accommodations for testing. Mrs. Nelson explained that the district is struggling to maintain its existing services and class sizes, which are 22 students in the elementary grades and 23 to 30 students in the middle schools and high school.
“We’re all struggling with a flat state aid rate, with increasing costs, with property owners who want to support the school but have to be realistic about how far they can go. So we’re just looking at how can we juggle so that we maintain, because we don’t want to fall behind,” Mrs. Nelson said.
Mrs. Nelson and Dr. Choye recommended that state aid should follow a student from one district to another. They commented that there are a growing number of special education students that are everyone’s responsibility. Right now, more than 10 percent of students in the school system are in special education.
They noted that the state is required to pay 100 percent of the cost of out-of-district tuitions that exceed $40,000 per student. Scotch Plains-Fanwood submitted a claim of $888,516 for 44 out-of-district students, but received state funding of only $323,325 in return.
“We estimate that the total cost of special education is a little over $11million and that is somewhat difficult to determine because that would not include the cost of a teacher of a student who is mainstreamed. It may be the cost of the aide that goes with that child, but it doesn’t necessarily include the cost within the classroom once that student is part of that environment,” Mr. Del Sordi explained.
The reimbursement from the state of that $11 million is $2.9 million, so the shortfall in the district in this category is about $8 million, he noted. Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s total state aid for 2005-2006 is $4.1 million, which also includes $715,000 in transportation aid and $400,000 for bilingual programs. There also are other contingencies such as Child Study Team meetings for children who are not classified but have other needs that are not even included in that $11 million.
Mr. Del Sordi remarked that, “Eventually, the better districts will be forced to reduce programs.” The programs districts such as Scotch Plains-Fanwood offer, like advanced placement courses, that really strengthen the education program will have to disappear. Class sizes may even have to go higher because so much of the burden is on the taxpayers, according to Mr. Del Sordi.
“I’ve seen the gamut and I’ve seen the caring and commitment in Scotch Plains and Fanwood,” said Dr. Choye. She expressed that there
is a wide range among students in the district but that the district is willing to work with the teachers so they can provide for the needs of each student. “That’s as challenging as any district can have,” she said.
Times Publisher Horace Corbin asked Dr. Choye, “Do you feel that property taxes are increasing at a rate that is, sooner or later, going to be unsustainable?”
Dr. Choye responded, “The Board of Education is the fundamental basis of our democracy. We have to look at a more equitable way (to fund education), and to hit the property taxpayer over and over; it just doesn’t seem to be an equitable way to do it.”
It was noted that 30 percent of the residents in the school district have children in the public schools. At 2 percent, Fanwood has the lowest percentage of property tax revenue in the county from nonresident sources. Scotch Plains was estimated to have about 8 percent non-resident property tax revenue.
It was acknowledged that, should the percentage of residents having children in the school system rise above the current 30 percent, a significant hike in property taxes would be experienced.
Editor's Note: Polls will be open on April 19 from 2 to 9 p.m. for residents to vote, deciding on the school budget and selecting board members seeking office.
Editorial of 05mar31
Can a Fix Be Found for Exploding School Costs and State Mandates?
April 19 marks the call for voting on the area public school budgets and to choose among those seeking seats on the boards. Between now and then, the school board members, PTOs and the superintendents will be hard at work promoting the budgets to the voters in hopes of approval at the polls.
In our region, about two-thirds of property taxes go to pay for the public schools. In the past several years, property taxes in New Jersey have risen sharply, particularly in this area. There appears to be no end in sight to the climb, nor do the state leaders have a plan to resolve matters. Worse yet, many of the state leaders do not even have an inclination to address this problem. This is of vast concern for homeowners, for legislators seeking re-election and for the citizenry-at-large.
Ten years ago (1995), the public school budget for Westfield was $47 million of which $41.5 million was paid for by property taxes. The enrollment then was 4,692 fulltime students plus 111 “others.”
Ten years ago (1995), the public school budget for Scotch Plains-Fanwood was $39.7 million of which $34.6 million was paid for by property taxes. The enrollment then was 3,996 fulltime students plus 82 “others.”
Today (2005), the Westfield Public School system requests a budget of $77 million of which $66 million is to be paid for by property taxes. The enrollment today is reported to be 5,154 fulltime students plus 926 “others.”
Similarly (2005), the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Public School system is requesting a budget of $67 million of which $58.7 million is to be paid for by property taxes. The enrollment today is reported to be 4,500 fulltime students plus 701 “others.”
In the 10-year span, the Westfield school budget has increased from $47 million to $77 million (64percent). The fulltime enrollment has risen 10 percent, but there has been an explosion in the size of students classified as “others” (from 111 to 926). Counting fulltime plus “others,” enrollment has risen 26.6 percent.
In the 10-year span, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood budget has increased from $39.7 million to $67 million (69 percent). The fulltime enrollment has risen 12.6 percent, but there has been an explosion in the size classified as “others” (from 87 to 701). Counting fulltime plus “others,” enrollment has risen 27.5 percent.
We’re not really sure who/what these “others” are, but they seem to play a large role in the numbers.
Dr. William Foley, Superintendent of Westfield Schools, told this newspaper that Special Education costs mandated by the state now amount to $15 million this year in Westfield. Four-million dollars of aid is expected from the state to pay for this mandate.
Similar complaints from other schools systems in the area have been heard.
In our opinion, the size of the increase in school expenditures cannot be fully explained by the increase in reported enrollment and general inflation alone. Other services and amenities must be in the programs – more teachers, gifted and special programs and smaller class sizes – and the “others?”
The state of New Jersey has not been a major factor in providing funds to our schools, such as the state does for Elizabeth, which accounts for 80 percent of their funding. We remain largely on our own. So it seems that because we are on our own, we should do our utmost to avoid the state and their unfunded mandates.
The state seems only able to penalize our success and they seem completely unable to correct the failures of others such as Newark, Plainfield, Camden, Paterson and Elizabeth.
It’s a very complicated subject and we appreciate the time given to us last week by Dr. Foley, Westfield School Board President Anne Riegel and Vice President Ginny Leiz. They answered all the questions asked, but we hardly knew enough to know what to ask.
We gathered that Dr. Foley believes that the property tax increases cannot continue forever. Sooner or later there’s going to be a bust. Dr. Foley noted that past Governor James McGreevey even left us with a time bomb – one that will explode next year with school budgets.
It goes like this: Schools were mandated to spend down their cash reserves (surplus) this year and last to give the appearance that property taxes are coming under control in time for this year’s governor and legislator races. But next year, the bomb explodes after they all are safely elected. There will be no cash reserves and the artificially disguised costs this year will return with a vengeance.
We sense someone must have some good ideas of how to deal with this situation – Dr. Foley might be one such person. We’d like to see a written action plan by someone who knows and supported by those who care.
March 31, 2005 www.goleader.com
Westfield School Officials: Budget Impacted By Special Ed, Flat State Aid
By PAUL J. PEYTON
Specially Written for The Westfield Leader
WESTFIELD -- Increasing special education costs, flat state aid and a new law lowering the use of surplus funds to offset property taxes are factors impacting the Westfield public schools proposed $77.2 million budget for the 2005-2006 school year, school officials revealed last Thursday during an interview in offices of The Westfield Leader.
The result is a 5 percent hike in the school tax levy bringing it to $66,025,201 that, if approved by voters, will increase local school taxes by 18 cents per $100 of assessed valuation or $324 for a home assessed at $180,000. The overall $77 million spending plan is up 4.85 percent over last year.
“It’s (the tax levy) is smaller than some of the previous years but still a significant hike,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. William Foley said.
“The community has pretty much overwhelmingly supported school budgets,” continued Dr. Foley. “The point is, how long can this go on?” The last school budget to be defeated was in 1994.
State aide for Westfield will be $4.6 million this year, which is 7 percent of the total budget. Two years ago the district received $4.9 million.
Last year the board passed an initial budget with a 19-cent hike in property taxes. Following the passing of state legislation, S-1701, the district had to reduce the surplus it kept on reserve. As a result, the district had to apply another $720,000 in its surplus to the revenue side of the 2004-2005 budget which reduced last year’s tax levy increase to 15 cents but lowered the district’s reserve or “rainy day fund” for emergency appropriations, officials explained.
Salaries and wages, including teachers and administrators, total $6,462,183, according to Assistant Superintendent and Business Secretary Robert Berman, accounting for 78.3 percent of the budget. Of that amount instructional salaries total $35,303,337; non-instructional, $7,364,202, an and administrative, $3,794,644.
Looking at this year’s budget, Board Vice President Ginny Leiz said, “Without question, every single school board meeting is distressed and concerned about the impact of what our school budget is going to do on property taxes.”
Ms. Leiz said the district in previous years kept 4 to 6 percent in the fund balance, which allowed for emergency funds for capital improvements, for special education tuition, and for in-district special education costs.
Due to the signing into law of S-1701, the board has placed $1.8 million in this year’s budget as a revenue item. But due to this option, Ms. Leiz explained, the district’s fund balance will be much lower. The legislation required the district to drop its fund balance to 2 percent of its operating budget last year and 3 percent this year.
“We anticipate that what we are going to have to keep available to us will not leave any monies to give into the budget to offset the tax increase” for next year, Ms. Leiz said.
Dr. Foley indicated the district would likely be left with around a million dollars in its fund balance for emergencies.
“This year 18 cents is bad enough. But next year, if the state does not give us any new state aid … you are talking about right at the top six tax points that we have to assess the homeowners of Westfield even if we don’t increase the budget,” Dr. Foley said.
“Our auditor was always very happy with our commitment; that we had a reserve balance,” Ms. Leiz said. She called this year’s fund balance “a uncomfortably low reserve.”
“But it deals with some short-term political issues in Trenton,” Dr. Foley responded, noting the school budget around the next year will see “an enormous spike” in school taxes.
With this in mind, Ms. Riegel said the board is still trying “to deliver a great education and try to manage the cost that we can manage and try to live with the tax situation in general and than the specific rules that the state has added that made us manage our money differently than we would have.”
When asked if the New Jersey Education Association is helping in addressing issues such as special education costs and rising school taxes, Dr. Foley said the association has not been much help to districts.
“They are essentially a lobbying group and they are part of the problem, not part of the solution,” Dr. Foley responded.
He said part of the reason for the increasing school budgets is due to enrollments spikes. The district has over 1,000 more students since the 1997-1998 school year, which has resulted in the hiring of an additional 50 teachers. Enrollment at Westfield High School is up 500 students to 1,800 since 2002.
Also impacting the budget is special education, which represents 21 percent or $15 million of the total budget. Dr. Foley said the district only receives back around $4 million in special education aid.
“I think all this business of Constitutional conventions is a waste of time. There is only one thing the state could do for Westfield and probably for most school districts. And that is helping us control special education (costs). And they can do that in two ways. One, they can begin to contribute the fair share to the taxpayers in Westfield for the programs that they mandated us to run,” said Dr. Foley.
The district employs 26 special education staff, an increase of 13 or 14 over the past six to seven years. Seventeen percent of the district’s 5,800 plus students are designated as classified for eligibility for special education programs, which is in par with the state’s average, Dr. Foley said.
Currently the district has 117 students placed in programs outside of the district, which accounts for $4 million in tuition expenses. Most of Westfield’s state aid is for special education costs, school officials said. The district is paying in excess of $40,000 for 52 students.
“The average cost is $58,000 per student,” said Ms. Leiz.
“It’s not that we want to pit general education parents against special education parents,” said Ms. Riegel. “But it costs a whole lot more and it comes out of the same pot of money.”
The state is supposed to reimburse the district for any amount in excess of $40,000 per child. Yet, Ms. Riegel said the district is lucky if it receives 25 percent of that amount.
Westfield applies each year for the federal IDEA grant for special education costs. Dr. Foley said the district receives a million dollars in funding from this grant.
In an effort to reduce special education costs. The district is looking to initiate programs in-district to reduce the costs of out-of-district placements. In the fall, Westfield will be starting a program for autistic children at a cost of $95,000 for a teacher and two aides.
“Autism is becoming one of the major forms of learning disabilities that we’re contending with in Westfield,” said Dr. Foley.
The district is required to fund programs for special education from age 3 to 21, officials said. The district currently has six sections of pre-school special education classes that meet half-day.
The school tax levy will be go before voters on Tuesday, April 19, from 2 to 9 p.m.