Union BOE OKs preliminary $137M budget

UNION, NJ — A divided Board of Education approved a $137 million preliminary budget for the 2019-20 school year, sending it to the Executive County Superintendent for review, despite the concerns of several board members at the March 19 regular meeting.

The spending plan passed 5-3 with one abstention one day before it was due at the County Superintendent’s Office, with some board members saying they had not had enough time to fully review the budget. Board members were provided with the information regarding the budget the night prior to the March 19 meeting, according to board member Kim Ruiz.
Board members Kalisha Morgan, Nellis Regis-Darby and Ruiz all voted against the five resolutions associated with the budget, with board Vice President Ronnie McDowell abstaining.

The proposed budget included a significant increase in costs associated with special services, establishing a limit of $2.1 million. The board requested the superintendent’s office provide additional detail clarifying the special services cost increase, with Regis-Darby saying, “when I see these numbers, some of it doesn’t make sense to me and it has to make sense so that I know what I’m doing and voting on for the district.”

While last year’s $132.7 million budget included a tax increase of $74.97 for the average homeowner, the estimated tax impact was not revealed at the March 19 meeting.

“We might as well vote blindfolded,” Ruiz said, after there wasn’t a clear answer as to why special services needs more than $2 million.

The tentative budget proposes a general fund tax levy of more than $91.5 million and has the district withdrawing more than $360,000 from its capital reserve for various projects, including bathroom renovations, new flooring and ceiling installation.

“Tonight’s presentation and submission is by no means final,” board attorney Lester Taylor said at the meeting. “There’s still ample opportunity for the board and the public to have their questions addressed and answered. Tonight is not the final step in the process.”

Former board member Jeff Monge said during public comment that it was “quite disappointing and quite surprising” that information about items related to the tax levy and professional services were not available online until the day before the meeting, adding that the district “lacks transparency.”

The public hearing for the budget is set for Tuesday, April 30, at 7 p.m. in the Union High School Library. The board will have a chance to amend the budget before final adoption, according to Taylor.

A resolution to approve school attendance by the child of a Union school employee who does not reside in the township was tabled in a 8-0 vote with one abstention after concerns regarding the item were raised by resident Jill Hall, who is a Union student assistance counselor.

“I have a heavy heart bringing this forward and I’m a little conflicted on it, but I’ve been sitting at meetings for many, many years and we often talk about how we have no money and how we have no space,” Hall said during public comment.
Regis-Darby motioned to table the request. Vito Nufrio was the sole abstention.

“The policy is not changing but obviously we need to have more discussion on this considering what was stated tonight,” Superintendent Gregory Tatum said at the meeting.