The South Brunswick Board of Education is discussing a spending plan that would increase the school tax rate by about 1.7 percent, but maintain staffing at current levels.
The proposed 4.9-cent increase would result in a 2012 tax rate of about $2.85 per $100 of assessed valuation. The owner of a township home with an assessed value of $190,000 would see their school taxes go up by about $100 if the board approves the spending plan.
During last night's meeting, preliminary discussions began for the public with two options presented for next year's school budget: A tax-rate increase without any staff cuts, or keeping the tax rate at its current level, which would require cutting over 30 staff members.
As has been the trend throughout the state, the loss of tax ratables continues to have a significant impact on the school budget. South Brunswick experienced another decline in ratables of about $5.4 million (2.3 percent) last year, according to Business Administrator Anthony Tonzini.
"Before we even began the (budget process), we were looking at a deficit of $5.4 million, or a 7-cent tax increase," Tonzini said during last night's meeting.
. Over the last seven years, South Brunswick's ratable base has decreased by $180 million. The drop in assessed value has a greater impact on the school tax rate than any other factor, according to township officials.
"Every time somebody gets their assessment reduced, think of that as a swimming pool with a leak," said Superintendent Gary McCartney. "Five of the last seven years, we sprung a leak."
Dr. McCartney noted during that time frame, the district asked for a tax increase only during years when ratables declined.
"The last time we didn't have a decrease in ratables, we didn't ask for a (school) tax increase," Dr. McCartney said. "In 2009-10, we had no loss of ratables and we had no tax increase. So if we didn't have a ratable decline this year then we wouldn't have a tax increase. We're asking for no more than what we lost."
The other option the board is considering would be to hold the tax rate firm at about $2.80 per $100 of assessed valuation by cutting $2.7 million, or about one-half of the money lost due to the ratable decrease.
This option would require eliminating 38.5 full time equivalent positions. The district has cut 212.7 full time equivalent employees since 2005-06. Teacher-student ratios for grades K-1 have increased to 1:23, for grades 2-5 increased to 1:25 and for grades 6-12 increased to 1:28.
Last year, voters approved a $95 million general fund levy that carried a 12.2-cent tax rate increase. A township home with an assessed value of $200,000 saw an increase of about $244 in school taxes and a home assessed at $300,000 saw an increase of about $366. The budget maintained the tax levy at the same level for the third consecutive year in South Brunswick.
Over the last six years, the school tax levy has increased by about $300,000.
"The only answer to a ratable decline is some sort of fix," McCartney said. "When you lose ratables, you increase the tax rate to regain the lost ratables. We're only asking for an increase to get the levy back to what it was."
The district received $20.1 million in state aid last year, which represented an increase of $1.26 million, but is still short of the $6.3 million in aid that was cut in 2010-11.
South Brunswick has a per pupil cost that's $2,035 below the state average, which qualified the district for the increased aid, according to McCartney. The district also saved about $1.5 million for next year through bond refinancing.
"That's called being prudent fiscally," McCartney added.
Unlike previous years, residents will not get to vote on the school budget next month. . Officials estimated the move could save the district $36,000 on the cost of running the April election.
Moving the election eliminates a budget vote entirely for spending that falls within the 2 percent tax cap. Only if the district presents a budget that goes above the 2 percent cap would it be required to put the budget before voters.
Under the 2 percent cap, the board could've raised the tax rate to about $2.87 per $100 of assessed valuation.
The Board of Education will hold a public hearing on the school budget at its next meeting on March 26.
What are your thoughts on the budget? Should the board maintain the tax rate and cut staff or should they increase the tax rate? Tell us in the comments.