Budget Spotlight: Livingston and Long Beach Island

John Mooney | April 26, 2011 | Education
On eve of local budget votes, a quieter mood after last year's record rejections

Silence may not always be golden but it can often be surprising.

Case in point: Gov. Chris Christie, who this year has uttered barely a word about school budgets.

Last year it was another — and much louder — story. The governor rallied voters to
reject school budgets that didn’t include concessions by schoolteachers. They more than obliged, voting down 56 percent of budgets statewide.

This year’s lack of rancor from the Statehouse appears to have set the overall tone for tomorrow’s school budget votes, with few towns feeling the frustration of a year ago and a better mood prevailing in many.

Still, that’s no guarantee in elections that typically draw a fraction of the registered voters, making them particularly unpredictable. But it helps that Christie has proposed a slight increase in state aid, after the steep cuts last year, and the new 2 percent tax cap has kept tax increases low.

As part of its ongoing look at local school spending across the Garden State, NJ Spotlight on the eve of the school budget votes visits Christie’s childhood home and a town on the Jersey shore looking to Wednesday to get back on the winning track.

Livingston: Cuts One Year Stay That Way

When budgets were going down all around them last year, the spending plan in Christie’s hometown district of Livingston — where he grew up and attended public school — actually passed easily.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t tough, with cuts to middle school sports, the elimination of so-called courtesy busing that is required by the state, and the loss of dozens of classroom aides. But the district withstood it, and the voters stuck by it.

This year, it hopes to keep alive the winning streak that dates back to 1986, with a $100.8 million budget proposal and a 1.5 percent tax increase that is safely within the cap.

And with no intention of restoring any of the cuts it made last year.

Brad Draeger, the district’s superintendent, explained that the 2 percent cap doesn’t leave much room for restorations anyway. The busing would be a difficult sell with inflation and fuel costs a dangerous wild card.

And the outsourcing of middle schools sports to the YMCA — and its new fees for participants — faced some resistance at first but also produced some pretty good basketball and soccer teams, he said.

And even the proposed $700,000 aid bump from the state offers little assurance, not when the state Supreme Court may have the final say on state aid next year anyway in its pending Abbott v. Burke ruling.

To keep it safe, the district has earmarked the money for technology upgrades, easy enough to pull back.

Draeger recalls a decade ago when there was an aide in every kindergarten class and then it was reduced to one in every three classrooms.

“Once you make a cut, it almost never comes back,” he said.

Long Beach Island: Down One School, Maybe Up a Budget

Long Beach Island’s school district is one of just two consolidated districts in the state, combining five tiny villages with names like Harvey Cedars and Surf City.

And while it may be a destination spot for summer, the K-6 district has just 238 students, a third the size of just two decades ago. So last year, with the economy lousy and questions mounting as to how it would head off the enrollment drop, the voters rejected the budget for only the second time in 50 years.

Trying to head off a repeat, the board moved this year to close one of its two schools, and then proposed for next year a $5.9 million budget that will raise the typical tax bill just 1.1 percent. And that on an average bill that’s around $300 for schools, a fraction of the state’s norm.

Despite losing $400,000 in state aid last year, the district’s superintendent said the proposed budget is still lower than it was in 2008.

“We’re simply trying to stay afloat while we move to the next building,” said Roger Caruba, the district’s superintendent. “But even if approved, we still are going to have to let aides go and a part-time custodian.”

The district has seen a $48,000 bump in state aid, money it has put back into the budget but nothing that provides much relief.

“When you cut $410,000 from our tiny budget, it will take us years to get it back,” Caruba said.

Still, the superintendent said he’s optimistic a new streak will start on Wednesday.

“Cautiously optimistic,” he said. “We have support of four out of five mayors, the taxpayers groups and the Republican club. Cautiously optimistic.”