Budget Spotlight: Springfield Township and Franklin Township

John Mooney | April 13, 2011 | Education
Second ballot questions go for necessities, like a full-time kindergarten teacher or school bus drivers

Nine school districts across New Jersey will go to their taxpayers on April 27 asking for a little extra help.

Under the new 2 percent tax cap enacted by the legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Christie, districts may pose second ballot questions separate from their overall budgets that ask for approval of spending that exceeds the cap.

By Friday’s deadline, just nine of the state’s nearly 600 districts filed the paperwork for making the separate request this year, for uses as far ranging as freshman sports, restored custodian positions and late buses.

As NJ Spotlight continues to highlight school spending and budgets around the state in a lead-up to the April 27 vote, we visit two of the districts asking second ballot questions.

Springfield Township (Burlington County)

Full-day kindergarten may seem a given in some school districts, but Springfield Township’s lone school only offers half-day classes.

“We have a teacher who teaches a morning class, takes a one-hour break for lunch and then teaches a separate afternoon class,” said Joseph Miller, the district’s interim superintendent.

So this year, on top of a $4.7 million budget proposal, the K-6 district is asking voters to approve another $100,000 to provide two sections of full-day kindergarten. The bulk of the money would be for a second teacher, as well as some start-up supplies.

“Look at the fact these kids are with us for two hours and 45 minutes,” Miller said.
“With snack and everything else, there is not enough time to meet the demands of math, and reading and science that are required today.”

“Full-day is not considered a luxury any more, it’s a necessity,” he said.

And it’s not just the education argument but an economic one, for both the district and the parents. Miller said that without the full-day program, too many families are putting their children into private programs elsewhere, and not coming back to the district for first grade.

Still, it will be no easy sell. The general budget is still going up 2 percent, and the 1 percent boost from the state wasn’t much, about $45,000.

The expanded kindergarten would add an estimated $100 to the average taxpayer’s bill, but with a cut in debt service, Miller said the average taxpayer will end up paying $20 less overall.

The district is coming off a year in which not only the budget went down in defeat but also three school construction referenda, each one worse than the last.

In addition, the district is entering into contract talks with its teachers that could land them anywhere, Miller said. The superintendent said he penciled in 2 percent increases into all salary line items.

“But if they go 3 percent, I’m up a creek, and we have to go back into the budget,” Miller said.

Franklin Township (Somerset)

While Springfield’s second question is one of the smallest sums of the group, Franklin Township schools are asking one of the largest amounts: $760,000.

And given the size and scope of the request for the 7,000-student district, it was a logical choice to ask the community to decide, said board president Eva Nagy.

As the K-12 district spring laid out its $129 million budget for next year, it was clear that even with the Christie administration throwing back an additional $1.2 million in state aid, this was going to be another lean spending plan.

Nagy said the state’s increase disappeared immediately, along with another $1 million in the district’s required payments to three charter schools, plus $190,000 in a new state assessment of a state construction grant.

Add another 200 students this year in the growing community, and the board started weighing its options to privatize laborers, bus drivers, custodians and paraprofessionals. A concession from the three unions for a salary freeze saved most of them, all except the bus drivers.

“But at the hearing, microphone after microphone after microphone, we heard about that,” Nagy said. “That’s when we decided to let the community to decide.”

So the district’s second ballot question will ask for more than three-quarters of a million to save the bus drivers, as well as to help restore afterschool extracurricular sports and arts.

Nagy, herself running for a seventh term on the board, said more budgets have lost than won in her district, and she’s not so sure this time, either.

“It all depends if the people get motivated,” she said.