Union schools still face layoffs with new budget

UNION, NJ — Local school board members may have found $890,000 in their budget to reduce potential layoffs, although the district still faces a $5.9 million budget shortfall.

About 149 staff members — including teachers, custodians and secretaries — were originally slated to be laid off with the budget presented April 24. However, school administrators said they’ve reduced that number by about 100 after devising a new budget, which passed April 26.
“I’m happy to announce today, that we’re down to 49,” Superintendent Gregory Tatum said regarding the number of projected layoffs. “So we’re pushing that number down. We’re working very hard to ensure that as many of our folks that we brought in here maintain a position.”

The $890,000 discovered by school board member Jeff Monge at the April 26 meeting could be the result of an overestimation from last year’s budget. About $560,000 was allocated for physicians and related services last year, but this year’s budget had $1.45 million slated for the same expense.

“It may be a mistake,” Monge said at the meeting, noting that the expense constituted a 159-percent hike. “What have we spent this year to show that need? Because that’s a tremendous increase.”

Director of Special Services Kim Conti said physicians and related services account for nurses and out-of-district behaviorists, which have seen increases over the years. More nurses are needed to attend to students’ physical needs, Conti said, even when children travel on buses.

The nearly $133 million dollar budget was approved April 26 in a 5-2-1 vote with one member absent, although school board members were unsure how much money had actually been used for physician and related expenses in the 2017-18 fiscal year. Some members acknowledged that the $560,000 allocated last year may have been an underestimation, hence the allocated increase for this year.

Sherry Higgins and Mary Lynn Williams voted against the budget, saying they wanted more information. Vito Nufrio abstained from the vote and Nancy Minneci was absent.

The $890,000 could be used to further reduce the estimated 50 layoffs, but would not decrease the tax levy, said school board Business Administrator Gregory Brennan. This year’s tax levy is 2.3 percent — or about $75 — for the average house assessed at $45,946, the superintendent told LocalSource after the meeting.

Assistant School Business Administrator Manuel Vieira said that if fewer nurses and behaviorists were needed, money set aside for that could later be used to cover other expenses. School board attorney Paul Griggs confirmed that changes to the budget can be made during the year.
The budget was passed with the “understanding” that Superintendent Tatum would present the board’s concerns about the nursing expenses to the county superintendent.

Brennan said the $5.9 million budget shortfall came from a fund balance decrease. There were also increases due to out-of-district students attending district schools, special education, salary raises and health care costs.

“We had increases in special education costs,” ” Brennan said. “We went from 130 out-of-district students to 150 and that averages $100,000 between special education tuition, aides, health services and transportation.”

Teachers and parents filled the Union High School Library, where the school board meeting was held April 26. Rich D’Avanzo, vice president of the local teachers union, said at the meeting that he was concerned with “the overdevelopment of the township of Union,” and how new residential units might impact the budget in future years.

“The township of Union … and the Board of Education are pretty much on different paths,” D’Avanzo said. “There’s not too much conversation on these developments and how it impacts schools in particular.”

Steven Le — who sits on the Union Planning Board and is an outspoken critic of some school board members — said the number of students enrolled in the district has decreased during the last decade.

“For all intended purposes, it’s about the nature of the developments,” Le said. “I’m on the planning board and I am proud of what I have done on the planning board and ensuring our town’s center looks nice and that there’s investment in our town center. And the fact of the matter is, some of these developments are mostly one-bedroom apartments.”