March 21, 2014 at 1:59 AM
LIVINGSTON, NJ - A sparsely attended public forum to discuss the 2014-15 school district operating budget was held at the Livingston Board of Education headquarters Thursday. In fact, only two Livingston residents attended, and earlier in the day, zero residents attended a meeting.
According to Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Mary Oates, in the past, budget meetings were crowded affairs, with many residents attending to voice their opinions. Voting privileges for the budget used to belong to Livingston residents; now the board is able to vote on the budget unilaterally (the budget must still be submitted to the county office for review).
“It used to be big road show [for the administration], speaking to PTA’s, the Women League of Voters, all these groups,” Oates said. “Now it’s much more straightforward.”
Lately, the state ordinance that caps annual budget increases at two percent over the previous budget has stemmed controversy and debate.
“The 2 percent cap provides a benchmark for the budget,” Oates said. “If we’re within that figure, we’re doing a good job of following protocol. Obviously, within that number, we still have to prioritize the best educational choices.”
The biggest priorities for this budget are special education programs, staffing at the high school level and capital improvements to school facilities.
The expansion of the special education programs will allow many special needs Livingston residents to be educated in-district. 130 residents are currently educated out-of-district; that number is projected to decrease to 95 next year.
“Livingston residents should be able to get an education near their homes,” Superintendent John Alfieri said. “It wouldn’t be appropriate for every resident, but for most kids we can provide better services here.”
“We were paying tuition rates of $50,000 a student to districts like Florham Park and Millburn, to have them educate our kids,” Business Administrator Steven Robinson said.
Staffing increases at the high school level will alleviate the growing student population at that school. It is an especially critical time for the high school, as Heritage Middle School is sending an unusually high number of students to LHS next year, according to Alfieri.
Of the capital improvement projects, Alfieri highlighted the installment of air conditioning in Heritage Middle School’s gym.
Parent Teacher Council President Wendy Slavitt commended the work that Alfieri, Robinson and others had done to create a sound budget.
“I just want to say thank you,” she said. “The positions we’re adding are not administrative, they’re actual teaching positions that will influence our kids. I think it’s great.”
Slavitt also spoke in support of the capital improvement projects that will take place across the district.
“[Improvements] are badly needed… It might cost us a little more, but if we act now, I think it will save us a lot of dollars in the long run.”
“Our buildings are our second-biggest resource,” Alfieri said. “Proactively maintaining them will be a big benefit to the district.”
In discussing the construction of the budget, both Alfieri and Robinson emphasized fiscal responsibility and the importance of moderation.
“I’ve been approached by Board members saying they want to cut it a little more and those who want to add more positions,” Alfieri said. “To lower the budget would hurt students and to raise it after saying ‘this is how much we need’ would be disingenuous.”
“Everything in this budget is designed to help students,” he said.
In discussions, it was said that potential funds have even been left on the table. If a district does not spend up to cap, they can roll over the amount of money saved for up to a three-year period. By this measure, Livingston could have spent $400,000. That money is “gone forever” according to Robinson.
“The attitude in Livingston has often been ‘spend more, buy more,’” Robinson said. “But if we spend every dollar, how can we say we’re fiscally responsible?”
Alfieri noted that even some of the township’s senior citizens have asked him why the district does not use more cap space.
“I’m very proud that my first budget as superintendent will be both educationally-sound and fiscally- responsible,” he said.