ROBBINSVILLE – Schools Superintendent Steve Mayer has unveiled a $37.86 million preliminary budget to the Board of Education that proposes a 3-cent increase in the school tax rate that works out to an average $272 a year per home.
About 70 percent of the proposed tax increase, about $192, stems from voters’ approval of the $18.9 million school construction referendum in December to expand and renovate Sharon Elementary School and Pond Road Middle School.
Highlights of the 2013-2014 spending plan were discussed at the Feb. 26 Board of Education meeting. Mayer said the preliminary tax impact numbers are subject to change, depending on state education aid figures and the interest rate the district gets at auction for the bonds being sold to finance school construction projects, including a two-story, 24-classroom addition at Sharon School.
“The debt service that we’ve included for the referendum we’ve forecast at a 3.54 interest rate,” Mayer told the Board of Education. ”If the bonds come in a point lower than that, the $272 (tax impact) comes down.”
Mayer noted the district recently was able to obtain lease-purchase financing for it Energy Savings Improvement Program (ESIP) at a 2.16 interest rate so it is possible that the 3.54 interest rate projection for the construction bonds, which was made back in October, might now “break in our favor.”
The preliminary budget also assumes the district will receive $2.2 million in state aid for 2013-2014, the same as it received in the current budget year. Should the district receive a significant increase in state aid for its new budget, that too could lessen the tax impact on residents, Mayer said.
Gov. Chris Christie announced in his state budget address to the Legislature that no New Jersey school district would have its state aid cut, and 318 districts would receive increases. The state Department of Education was expected to release district-by-district aid figures for 2013-2014 later this week.
Robbinsville’s preliminary 2013-201school spending plan contains a $32.84 million tax levy, which is $644,084 higher than the current year’s budget – a 2 percent increase that complies with the state’s 2 percent cap on tax levy increases.
The tax levy is the total amount that must be raised through local property taxes to support operations. Under a new state law, school budgets that are within cap no longer have to go to the voters for approval.
Mayer said annual increases in the district’s “fixed costs,” such as transportation, utilities, salaries and healthcare expenses, consume most of the allowable 2 percent levy increase.
“There aren’t a lot of discretionary dollars available to us and we try to allocate them as wisely as we can,” Mayer said. “The new dollars that come into the budget end up being consumed fairly quickly by some of the fixed things.”
The preliminary budget, as it currently stands, does provide funding to hire the equivalent of 5.5 full-time staffers. Most of these positions are in reading, mathematics and special education to address academic program needs and increasing enrollment at the K-8 level, he said.
School Board of Education members noted the district is still recovering and rebuilding its staff after the layoffs of 26 people in 2010 that were necessary after deep state and local budget cuts.
“This doesn’t even bring us back to par yet,” board Vice President Carol Boyne said, noting that student enrollment has been steadily increasing even as the district has been working on returning staffing levels to pre-2010 levels.
The proposed 2013-2014 budget also spends money on technology upgrades and reserves funds for security improvements at Robbinsville schools in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre. Planned upgrades include new, more secure entranceways at Sharon and Pond Road Middle School and may also include additional changes at all schools, depending on the outcome of an independent security audit, Mayer said.
The district’s ESIP program will pay for energy improvements at the Sharon School, Pond Road Middle and Robbinsville High School at no cost to the taxpayer using the energy savings generated by the more-efficient technology to finance the purchase of the new boilers, HVAC equipment and other mechanicals. At its Feb. 26 meeting, the board unanimously approved a bid by Banc of America Public Capital Corp. to provide lease-purchase financing for the $4.77 million ESIP program at an annual interest rate of 2.16 percent.
The Board of Education has scheduled a special meeting for 6:30 p.m., March 5 to adopt the preliminary 2013-2014 budget. A public hearing and final adoption vote is scheduled for 7 p.m., March 26 at the high school.