Berkeley Board of Ed Unanimously Approves Budget
School officials hope to save number of positions that are slated to be eliminated
Berkeley Board of Education members unanimously approved a 2011-12 budget that calls for a negligible decrease in what property owners will pay in school taxes and the elimination of nine staff positions.
Interim Superintendent Arlene J. Lippincott told the audience of about 100 at the Berkeley Township Elementary School last night that the budget was still not "cast in stone."
"We've had to make some serious adjustments," Lippincott said. "This was not done lightly. Exactly what positions will be cut are not cast in stone. We do know there are nine positions to be cut. There are programs that may be modified."
The proposed budget tentatively calls for the elimination of nine staff positions, including two gifted and talented teachers, two resource center teachers, one psychologist, three classroom teachers and a speech therapist. But that could change, depending on more staff retirements and shared services with other districts, both Lippincott and board President James J. Byrnes said.
The elimination of the two gifted and talented teachers didn't sit well with many members of the audience. A number of parents and some students went to the microphone during the public hearing on the $32,022,145 budget — down $1,751, 668 from last year — to urge the board to keep the current gifted and talented curriculum and staff intact.
Melissa Pagnotta, a senior at Central Regional High School, told the board her time in the gifted and talented program was invaluable. When she heard the program would be affected by budget cuts, Pagnotta said she was "shocked and appalled."
"When I look back at my elementary school days, it's all I remember," she said. "When I got to middle school, I was ahead of the other kids. If you truly want to help the kids, you have to keep gifted and talented."
Samuel J. Cammarato, president of the Berkeley Township Taxpayers Coalition, said he wanted to address the board as a "voice of reason."
"We all have programs we would like to see enhanced," Cammarato said. "But the times we live in don't call for that. Our economy has been compared to the 1930s. Our town has just gone through one of the worst revaluations we've ever seen. People can't afford to pay their mortgages."
More than 50 percent of township residents are senior citizens living on fixed incomes, he said.
"They can't afford any more large increases in their property taxes," Cammarato said. "We can no longer afford what we had in the past."
Resident George McCusker reminded the board of Berkeley voters' long history of voting down school budgets.
"You have an abundance of senior citizens who vote no on everything," said McCusker, a senior citizen himself. "I have a solution to get them to vote yes. First, get this meeting the devil out of this building. Put it in Town Hall where it can be televised. When anything comes up that's local, people watch it intensely. You want a yes vote, do that. I guarantee it will pass."
A property owner with a home assessed at the township average of $204,100 will see a decrease of 52 cents for the upcoming budget year. The school tax rate will be roughly 51.5 cents for each $100 of assessed valuation.
The budget also calls for employees to contribute 1.5 percent of their salaries for health care insurance premiums, and a four-day work week for district employees during the summer.
Cammarato suggested that the 1.5 percent be increased during contract negotiations with the district's four unions next year.
"I don't think it's such a terrible thing to ask these employees in the district to pay a little more for their health benefits," he said.
Byrnes and Business Administrator/Board Secretary Laura J. Venter said the board would continue to look at shared services with Central Regional and other school districts. The amount to be raised by taxation will drop from last year's $26,681,262 to $26,512,541, according to budget figures provided by the district.
The proposed budget leaves 450,000 in the district's surplus account, along with $550,000 in capital reserves. That compares to last year's $620,250 in surplus and $550,000 in capital reserves.
The district will receive $1.8 million in state aid, down from the $3 million received in 2009, Venter said.
The board went into closed session after the regular meeting to discuss personnel issues. Lippincott is slated to step down from the interim superintendent's position when former Superintendent Joseph H. Vicari returns on April 1.