Pinelands Regional Budget Would Lay Off Six Teachers

Taxes Higher in Tuckerton, Lower in Little Egg Harbor
May 03, 2017

The Pinelands Regional Board of Education unveiled its 2017-18 budget on Monday evening at a well-attended public hearing. It calls for expenditures of $31,790,796, up $281,130, or 0.9 percent, from 2016-17.

The taxpayers of two of the district’s constituent municipalities, Eagleswood and Little Egg Harbor townships, will actually see a drop in their district taxes this year. The owner of a home assessed at $200,000 in Eagleswood would pay $2.58 less per month in district taxes while the owner of a similar home in Little Egg Harbor would pay $1.98 less per month.

On the other hand, the taxpayers of the district’s other municipalities, Bass River and Tuckerton, will see their taxes increase. The owner of that $200,000 home in Bass River will have to shell out an additional $2.25 a month. It is Tuckerton residents, however, who will be hurt the worst, with an owner of a $200,000 home paying an extra $10.22 monthly. That would make for a year-long increase of $122.64, on top of the extra $68 dollars a year Tuckerton taxpayers owning $200,000 homes will have to pay toward a $2.1 million elementary school bond referendum voters approved last fall and a 1.8-cent per $100 of assessed value tax rate increase in the Tuckerton municipal budget introduced in March, meaning an increase of about $35 this year.

For several years state aid has remained flat; for 2017-18, it will actually drop $6,558, which means all of the additional revenues needed to pay for the budget will have to come from taxpayers.

Maryann Banks, the district’s interim superintendent, set the tone for the budget discussion when she started her introductory remarks by thanking the voters of the district for approving three referendum questions in January totaling $53 million. Because the district had so recently drunk so deeply out of the public well, she told the audience, “The board has an obligation to demonstrate fiscal responsibility. We appreciate what you’ve done in handing a $53 million bond referendum to us.”

If a school board wants to reduce its budget, or at least keep an increase to a minimum, one of the first things it usually considers is a reduction in staff because salaries tend to be, far and away, the largest line item for a district. In the 2016-17 school year, $18,186,781 of the Pinelands Regional School District’s $31,509,666 budget was paid out in salaries to administrators, teachers, secretaries, custodians, maintenance workers, paraprofessionals and substitutes.

Banks has maintained the district has lost 300 students since October 2012, when Superstorm Sandy crashed into the region. That has resulted, she says, in overstaffing, especially – in descending order – in the social studies, English and special education departments and in the child study team. So six teaching spots are eliminated in the 2017-18 budget, including two each from social studies and language arts and one each from special education and the child study team.

Five of those teachers didn’t have tenure, so their contracts were simply not renewed. The sixth did indeed have tenure so was subject to a “reduction in force,” meaning if the position was to open again, that teacher will have to be offered the job before anybody else.

Toss in seven other staff members who were lost to attrition – retirement or leaving the district – and a total of 13 staff members were eliminated for next year.

The reduction in staff will result in a 2017-18 payroll of $17,736,104, a 2.48 percent drop of $450,677 in that line item from the current school year. That is, in real dollars, the largest cut in the district’s budget by far.

“The cuts,” said Banks, “will not have an adverse impact on programs or for our students.”

Those cuts, though, were more than wiped out by several significant increases. An additional $389,590 will be spent on employee benefits in 2017-18 than in 2016-17, a 6.35 percent increase. An additional $120,811 will be spent for curriculum, textbooks, supplies and educational media, a 15.44 percent jump. The budget for tuition for things such as private schools for the handicapped, vocational schools and vocational shared-time arrangements will go up 11.45 percent, rising from $830,518 to $925,593, a $95,075 increase. The cost of cleaning, maintaining and repairing the district’s buildings and grounds, including supplies, will jump from $1,137,715 to $1,255,175, a 10.32 percent or $117,460 increase.

After Banks and Business Administrator Stephen J. Brennan completed their two-part presentation, board members were given a chance to make comments of their own. All of them didn’t, but the ones who did echoed the financial responsibility theme.

Constructing the budget, said Thomas D. Williams Jr., who represents Bass River Township, was a matter of “balance.”

“I saw where tens of thousands of dollars were sliced out of lines,” said board President Susan M. Ernst, one of the representatives from Little Egg Harbor Township. “We already had a $53 million referendum.”

“We are still a community recovering from Sandy,” said another LEH representative, board Vice President Betti Anne McVey. “We hope everything improves, but we are a family that really needs to tighten our belts. We talked about not driving folks out of their houses with tax increases.”

Ratio Questions,

Enrollment Numbers

For the third straight board meeting, the public comment period was dominated by talk of the high school football team. Some of the teachers being cut were also football coaches, including head coach Brian Wilkinson and offensive line coach Anthony Allocca. Some speakers defended sports in general and football in particular.

Paul Losiewicz of Little Egg Harbor described himself as a longtime varsity football official and the president of the Pinelands Junior Wildcats football club. He said he and his family had moved into the district in 2008, attracted by the area’s small-town neighborhood feel. Football, he said, is part of that small-town experience, calling it “the sport that can unite a community.”

Losiewicz also told Banks and the board that Wilkinson had “worked hard to get out the vote for the referendum,” making his removal a slap in the face.

“I really hope each and every one of you know sports is an essential part of a child’s education,” said Mike Angulus of Tuckerton.

His daughter, Angulus continued, is graduating from Pinelands this spring and is going to play soccer for Duquesne University on a full, $54,000-a-year scholarship.

“Frankly, you’re making a terrible mistake. Don’t take away important role models.”

Other speakers cast doubt on the district’s numbers.

Football player David Kohler said the idea that the district has a 10:1 student-teacher ratio is inaccurate. Outliers, such as the high number of Pinelands students enrolled in special education classes, are responsible for the low ratio.

“That 10:1 ratio does not reflect accurately the general population.”

Another football player said there are 31 students in his history class.

“We have to rely on a kid being missing to get a seat.”

One man spoke twice, questioning Banks’ statement that the district had lost 300 students since Sandy. He said the district posted enrollment numbers on its website each year in its annual user-friendly budget. Indeed, those numbers are on the very first page of that budget.

The online numbers seem to show the man knew what he was talking about.

Superstorm Sandy slammed into the New Jersey coast on Oct. 29, 2012. The district’s own numbers show the district’s pre-Sandy enrollment – as of Oct. 15, 2012 – to be 1,671.

As of Oct. 15, 2013, that figure had dropped, but only to 1,653. A year later enrollment had dropped to 1,619.

The number of students on the district’s roll fell to 1,593 by Oct. 15, 2015.

The district’s website shows the district’s student population actually increased between 2015 and 2016. On Oct. 15, 2016, the district claims it had 1,602 students of all sorts – regular full-time, regular shared-time, special ed full-time, special ed shared-time – enrolled.

That’s a drop of 69 students, not 300.

The district’s estimated student population for Oct. 15, 2017, is 1,582. That would result in a larger loss of students since Sandy, 89, but still far from the 300 Banks has been talking about.

Still, nobody on the board publicly opposed the staff cuts, even though speakers pointed out that it had wiggle room because the 2017-18 budget called for a tax levy increase of 1.5 percent. The state allows 2 percent. Plus, Brennan, when answering an audience member’s question, said the district would have a reserve of “$700,000 to $800,000.”

The SandPaper asked the board and Banks if they were concerned about finding new football coaches in time for the 2017 season. After all, it isn’t as if they can attract experienced coaches from other districts by offering them teaching jobs, and Pinelands is remote enough to make educators from other districts take pause to consider how much extra time driving to and from practice would add to their days. And a May start doesn’t give the district much of a window in which to recruit coaches before practice starts in August, not to mention keeping the players working out in the gym in July.

“We will have football and we will have coaches this fall,” said Banks.

— Rick Mellerup

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