SUMMIT, NJ — The school board approved a budget of more than $65 million for next academic year in a 6-1 non-binding vote at the March 7 meeting, with more than $1.5 million allocated for expanding the district’s kindergarten program to full day.
The Board of School Estimate will have final approval at its March 25 meeting, and if it passes, the city will see free, full-day kindergarten beginning in September. It would replace the current system which includes a free, half-day program and a tuition-based full-day program chosen by lottery.
Board president Deb McCann was the sole vote against the budget, stating that she will state her full reasons for opposing at the BOSE meeting.
“For now, I will cast my vote which I believe does represent all kids in Summit and a large part of this community,” she said before casting.
Prior to this, McCann expressed concerns regarding the impacts on future budgets with the possibility of state-aid reductions.
The BOSE is comprised of two board members, McCann and Chris Bonner, and two common council members, Marjorie Fox and Matt Gould. Mayor Nora Radest is also on the board, but only votes in the event of a tie.
Assistant Superintendent of Business Lou Pepe explained to the board that the final budget is less than the one presented at the February board meeting because of what he called “breakage” the retiring of older, more experienced — and therefore higher-paid — teachers with younger and less experienced ones.
The budget was reduced by more than $270,000.
However, residents face a $137 tax increase for the average home assessed at $410,000, according to Pepe.
The budget increase was a concern among many residents at the more than three-and-a-half hour meeting due to the increase in taxes and the addition of a full-day program. The budget hike is more than 3 percent above last year’s spending plan, but because the school board used its “cap bank” — spending allowances reserved from previous years — it does not need voter approval.
“Exceeding the 2 percent cap for no emergency purpose is sheer folly,” former councilman Tom Getzendanner said. “Summit already offers a full-day option that far exceeds the state’s compulsory education standard, voluntarily turning this break-even program into a $1.5 million-line item which misreads taxpayers.”
Former board member James Freeman said that the board should reconsider the budget because middle-class families will be subsidizing families that are wealthier than them with the implementation of full-day kindergarten.
Superintendent June Chang told the board that the participation in the current tuition-based full-day program has increased 300 percent in the five years since its implementation.
The budget utilizes more than $380,000 of the district’s “cap bank.”
Pepe said Summit has about $1.5 million in banked cap.
“This budget is about meeting the demands of a changing world. The demands on our students change and there should
be equitable access for all,” Chang said during the presentation.
Other factors that contribute to the budget include a 5 percent increase in health care as well as an almost 3 percent salary increase.
“It’s not only about attracting, but retaining top talent,” Chang said regarding the salary increase. “We don’t want the best and brightest to go to neighboring districts.”
Former board president Celia Colbert commented on how the implementation of full-day kindergarten has been a decision for over a decade and that the board’s banked cap shows fiscal responsibility.
“I don’t want to be a part of a city that does something unfair,” she said, referring to the current system.
Bonner expressed his support for a universal, free full-day program, by saying that all kids should be given equal opportunity and adding “the current tuition-based system is not keeping with that. The tuition-based lottery system is inherently unfair and I will not vote for any budget again that includes it.”
Residents also expressed their satisfaction with the full-day program, including Erica Lang, who said her son struggled with the amount of work he needed to complete daily when he went through the half-day program.
“It’s too much information packed into a two-and-a-half-hour period,” she said, adding that she feels a full-day program would have allowed her son to relax and would eliminate the difficulty of learning the content.
The BOSE previously rejected a proposed budget that included full-day kindergarten in 2013 with a 3-2 vote, even though it passed through the school board.