In what is likely to be received as welcome news, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Board of Education unanimously adopted a 2011-2012 budget Thursday night that results in a $1.64 million lower tax levy than last year.
"This is a budget that gets us where we want to go and at a smaller outlay than last year," board member Donald Parisi, chairman of the board's Finance Committee, said during his presentation of the budget.
The reduction results from a slight increase in state aid, a number of teacher retirements and, Parisi said, "sound fiscal management in this district for years." He pointed to the installation of energy-saving motion-activated light switches in district buildings, energy credits obtained through the installation of solar panels on Terrill Middle School, new and less expensive health and dental insurers for all employees, an increase in facility- and field-use fees, the introduction in 2009-2010 of an "activity fee" for extracurricular activities and tuition for the district's preschool program, the implementation of a comprehensive three-year maintenance plan and early payoff of turf field bonds, which ultimately saved money on interest, he said.
What this means for Scotch Plains and Fanwood taxpayers, however, is a little more complicated. The budget totals $81,902,380, with a tax levy of $75,403,338. How that levy is divided between the two towns, however, is determined by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, not the school board.
In 2010-2011, Scotch Plains residents paid 77.32 percent of the school tax levy, and Fanwood residents paid 22.68 percent. This year, the Department of Community Affairs adjusted the breakdown to match changes in each town's population: in short, it lowered the amount that Fanwood residents pay to 22.46 percent, and raised the share of the school tax levy that Scotch Plains residents pay to 77.54 percent – what Parisi called "a pretty significant increase."
As a result, while Fanwood residents will see an average decrease of $151, or 2.3 percent, to their school taxes, Scotch Plains taxpayers will experience an average increase of $64, or 0.89 percent.
"This unfortunately is a fairly frustrating item for us," Parisi said, referring to himself, Business Administrator Anthony Del Sordi and members of the board's Finance Committee.
Returning to a positive note, however, he argued that Scotch Plains and Fanwood residents are receiving "true value for your tax dollars." In 2009-2010, the last period for which data is available, Scotch Plains-Fanwood ranked second for per-pupil cost among comparable to schools, and its students achieved as well or better than comparable schools on statewide assessments.
In addition, Parisi noted that the board has approved updates and additions to its curricula, including new textbooks for elementary school english classes and the implementation of Mandarin Chinese.
"The value of our budget is that we are spending less while our program continues to deliver the desired student outcomes," Parisi stated. "It delivers what we need to deliver for our students at less of a cost than last year."
The $100 activity fee will also be suspended for 2011-2012, he said.
Residents will go to the polls Wednesday, April 27, to vote on the proposed tax levy and the candidates for the Board of Education. The levy, which will appear on the ballot as $73,596,374 because it does not include debt service, must be approved by a simple majority of voters. Polls will be open from 2 to 9 p.m.