SUMMIT, NJ — The city’s school district would expand its half-day kindergarten program to a free, full-day operation under a proposed $66 million budget for the next school year, one that exceeds the state-restricted 2-percent cap by $800,000.
The $66,171,587 spending plan, introduced by Superintendent of Schools June Chang at the nearly three-hour Feb. 14 Board of Education meeting, is more than 3 percent higher the previous year’s budget.
Louis Pepe, the district’s assistant superintendent of business, said at the meeting the proposed budget would increase by about $800,000, adding that the school board would not need voter approval for the increase, since it will tap the district’s “cap bank”. When districts approve budgets below their allowable 2-percent maximum, it may chose to reserve or “bank” the remainder for later use. Pepe said Summit has about $1.5 million in banked cap. Local government entities may tap into these funds, thereby exceeding the maximum 2-percent ceiling without voter approval.
Chang said the budget is centered on student experiences while also meeting the demands of the changing world, saying in his presentation, “The investment in Summit Public Schools is an investment in every student.”
During the expense breakdown at the meeting, Pepe expressed satisfaction that more than 60 cents per dollar — or 66 percent — of the draft budget will go toward classroom instruction.
“The bulk of every dollar is still going to the students directly,” he said.
About 14 percent goes toward expenses such as guidance, media and library funding, and staff training, and 9 percent toward operational plant services.
Pepe also said the 2009-10 school year was the last year the district had received 100 percent of its expected state aid, and the following year it had received nothing.
“Each year since, the state has been restoring our aid,” Pepe said, adding that in the 2018-19 school year, the district received $2.3 million, which was still short of the original offer of $2.5 million.
“When districts talk about doing more with less, we’ve actually accomplished it,” he added.
This year’s tentative budget assumes the same amount of state aid as the current school year because the district is not sure if it will increase, said Pepe, adding that the district will learn about its aid Tuesday, March 5, when Gov. Phil Murphy’s makes his budget address.
Chang highlighted full-day kindergarten as one of several initiatives that will help Summit stay competitive.
“We want to make sure that we meet the demand of a changing world at each grade level,” he said.
The superintendent also touched upon the district’s science, technology, engineering, arts and math program; robotics program; and the high school’s culinary program as initiatives focused around student experiences.
“We are focused in terms of not just sustaining what we’re able to do, but we’re continuously pushing to where we can be the best,” he said.
Pepe said that house values in Summit have remained relatively strong in the last few years, adding that “one of the things we always talk about is the direct correlation between property values and strong educational programming.”
During the last 10 years, the average school tax increase has been less than 2 percent, according to Pepe, and median sales price for a residence in Summit was more than $1 million last year.
School board member Donna Miller asked if using the district’s banked cap would impact the district in the long run. Pepe said it would not, adding that, “the purpose of generating banked cap is to operate more efficiently. If we didn’t have banked cap, we wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Pepe added that the loss of the tuition-based, full-day kindergarten program would cost the district $736,000.
Paola Acosta, president of the nonprofit education-advocacy group Speak Up Summit, praised the budget during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“This is a labor of fiscal discipline that the district has been doing for many years; this is prudent decision to save money without sacrificing the quality of education,” she said.
Summit Councilman Greg Vartan told the board and administrators that there is currently inequality in Summit, but universal full-day kindergarten would make “the starting line the same for all students.”
The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the budget at its March 14 meeting, however that won’t be the final word. The Board of School Estimate — an oversight panel comprised of two members of the school board, two members of the Common Council and Mayor Nora Radest — will review the preliminary budget at a meeting on March 7. It will have the final say at a March 25 meeting at City Hall.