Perhaps only a handful of Weehawken’s registered 5,200 voters will head to the voting booths Tuesday to select three candidates for the Board of Education who are running unopposed.
Incumbents Francis Pizzuta and Patricia Sullivan, as well as Susan Morales-Jennings, who is finishing out the term that was occupied by the late Luis Rosas, who died last September, will all gain three more years to serve on the Weehawken Board of Education after Tuesday’s election.
New school board budget
But the more pending item on the ballot Tuesday is the 2007-08 school board budget, a total of $20,586,462, up nearly $1 million from last year.
The new budget calls for a slight tax raise, probably around $70 per household with an averaged property value assessed at $140,000.
When the Board of Education was first putting together the numbers for the coming year, it looked as if Gov. Jon Corzine’s new 4 percent cap on all money raised by property taxes was going to severely hurt the Weehawken school system.
“It was a different year for us, because we could not go over the 4 percent of the tax levy,” Board of Education President Richard Barsa said. “There were a few exceptions where you could exceed the cap, like in paying health benefits, but everything else had to remain within the 4 percent.”
So the initial budget called for an increase in the tax levy of $1.067 million to $13.3 million.
“But the $1.067 million was not enough for what we needed,” Barsa said. “Our expenses went up $1.676 million, when you figure in special education tuitions and transportation. We went through every line item and saw where we could make cuts. We were in a bit of a budget crisis.”
They sliced approximately $310,000 out of the budget for special education tuitions.
“It was always there in case we needed it,” Barsa said. “We don’t know what we’ll do if we need it come September.”
But the other proposed cuts were going to hit a little closer to home.
The Board first proposed to cut some extracurricular activities, such as the Arts Horizon group that helps with the annual production of the high school musical.
Other after school programs were slated to be sliced and the Board was poised to eliminate two elementary school teachers, as well as one high school math and one high school English teacher.
“It was going to affect class sizes,” Superintendent of Schools Kevin McLellan said. “But we had to do it.”
When Mayor Richard Turner was informed of the planned cuts, he decided to step in and offer assistance from the township.
“We had made consistent improvement with the schools over the past few years,” Turner said. “We couldn’t afford to go backwards. We made a commitment to have a well-rounded school system. It’s a benefit of the community to have a good school system.”
So with the help of the township council, Turner devised a plan that would help defray some of the costs in the school budget.
Turner decided to put approximately $300,000 of the costs for the school’s recreation programs that are held in the school gyms on the township’s books as recreation programs.
Some of those costs are custodial cleanup after the recreation events, as well as utility bills and other added expenses.
“The township is reimbursing us for the use of the gyms,” McLellan said. “It was a cost of $101,000 for the last three years, so that $300,000 goes on this year’s budget.”
The other line item to help the school budget crisis was the addition of the new 90 residential units that recently opened at the Riva Pointe luxury condominium complex on Harbor Boulevard.
“Riva Pointe’s ratables go on the books for the coming year,” Turner said. “The addition of the new ratables offsets the cost for the schools. Because of the reimbursement and the additional ratables, we were able to avoid the proposed cuts. Now, it’s a minimal tax increase, one that fits with the cost of living.”
The new tax rate for the school board stands at $12.82 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
Budget pending approval
Barsa is confident that the voters will approve this budget that includes the approximate $70 tax hike per household.
“I don’t think it will get voted down,” Barsa said. “I think the residents realize that there’s a cap, we have a challenge putting together a budget. The people of Weehawken will understand that we had to do this. There’s no surplus and we don’t anticipate one. Our hands were tied.”
“We’ve been able to produce quality test scores,” McLellan said. “On a whole, our students are consistently good. We’re putting kids into good colleges. It’s money well spent.”
Right now, the district spends $13,034 per student for the coming year, a number that is a little higher that the state average of $12,000 per student.
“But we’ve worked very hard to make progress with our schools,” McLellan said. “We want to continue to go in the right direction. We saved the positive things we need to give our students, make sure that they continue to have that competitive edge.”
“Every year is a challenge putting out a school budget,” Barsa said. “People have to realize that having a solid and good school system gives their homes higher appreciation and better value. It’s definitely money well spent.” Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or email@example.com