Closing of Budget ‘Gap’, Use of Surplus, Future Role of M-SPEC, Dominate Millburn Board of Education’s Sunday Forum
Sunday, January 27, 2013 • 9:40pm
MILLBURN, NJ—The township’s board of education held the second of two open forums seeking public input on school body matters on Sunday afternoon at the Millburn Public Library.
Much of the early part of the discussion centered on the board’s idea to bridge the approximate $2 million gap between proposed expenditures of $80,328,271 in the 2013-2014 school budget and currently anticipated revenues of $78,605,322—as outlined on Jan. 14 by Superintendent James Crisfield.
The later portion of the forum featured a continued discussion of the role of M-SPEC (the Millburn Special Education Committee) in light of a decision by Crisfield to form another parental advisory committee to consult with the district on special education matters.
During the budget discussion, a resident asked which areas of expenditure reduction were under consideration to close the gap in the spending plan.
The superintendent said although he would reveal more details during budget discussions during tomorrow’s regular board meeting, a chief area of consideration would be deferral of capital projects. He added, however, that there was a “significant risk” that once budgets for capital outlay items were brought to zero it would be difficult to return these items to future budgets.
Crisfield also noted that not doing some technology upgrades and not acting on staffing recommendations might be considered.
A suggestion by Bonnie Most, a Hartshorn School parent, that the district add air conditioning to the school to help children such as her own with asthma problems met with support from board members but doubt that the district could find adequate financial resources to make the addition.
Board member Michael Birnberg said the board probably could not squeeze the expenditure into its operating budget, adding it could be considered in the capital outlay budget but possibly would have to be done in all district schools. This, he noted, would probably have to go into a $10 to $20 million bond referendum to be voted on by township resident.
Board member Jean Pasternak noted the property committee had to prioritize a number of projects and the air conditioning proposal possibly could be listed among those priorities, especially in light of a possible $12.871 million fund balance the district currently has.
The board could, under state law, only “touch” a small part of the fund balance, according to member Eric Siegel. He did suggest, however, that the school calendar could be adjusted in the future so students would not be in classrooms in the warmer months.
Speaking on the fund balance, Josh Scharf of Short Hills said the district had $12.8 million “sloshing around” in various pockets of the budget and didn’t know how the district could increase its budget by $5 million a year while “pleading poverty” and having residents complain about tax increases.
He added the board eliminated courtesy busing, claiming that only would cost each affected family $750, but this amounted to about 5 percent of the household budget of the average township family.
Siegel replied the school body only had control of about $2.9 million of the surplus adding he would not like to see the surplus get close to zero.
School Business Administrator Steven DiGeronimo added the surplus use figures were too complicated to explain in a public forum. He did say, however, that the capital reserve had been accumulated over the years and some of it had been spent over the course of the last budget year and some over the course of the current budget year.
“Spending on capital projects has been woefully short,” he added, “and people are finally getting a handle on it.”
Responding to a question about how much flexibility the district had in dealing with the entire budget, Crisfield said if the Millburn schools wanted to keep staffing at about the current levels only about 20 percent of the total allowed for any flexibility.
He suggested that the district might look at the relationship between administrative and instructional staffing.
Board member Lise Chapman replied that the New Jersey Schools Report Card showed Millburn with an administrative staff that numbered on “the high side” compared to its instructional staff but this might have to do with the township district’s educational needs.
Crisfield noted, however, in the I and J socio-economic rankings of school districts that include Millburn the township comes in higher in instructional versus administrative staffing.
Pasternak suggested that the board and administration look more closely at “how we are engineering to provide education” such as applying the Hartshorn Outdoor Program to other schools in the district.
Birnberg added, considering the expectations of Millburn parents for the high-performing district, the education body has strived to make every cut possible while “trying to maintain the integrity of our educational system within the constraints under which we operate.”
Board president Jeffrey Waters noted the board had previously eliminated departmental supervisors and instituted department head positions at the high school with increased teaching loads for the department heads. This produced good results, he said.
He added the district had saved $2 million last year by convincing its teachers to move from a private health plan to the state health plan.
“Every decision involves a tradeoff,” he said.
On another topic involving the budgetary process, resident Sondra Kasdon said the board’s deliberations appear less open than they were a few years ago. She added the public is not given as much insight into the discussions that take place in committee sessions with the results announced in public.
Waters replied much of the budgetary discussions a few years ago resulted from an “emergency” in which the district at first was told its state aid would be cut by 15 per cent then, a short time later, the aid was completely eliminated.
With last year’s “windfall” due to the $2 million savings resulting from the healthcare plan savings, he noted, the school body did not believe much discussion was warranted.
Birnberg added when there is a great deal of disagreement on issues board members air their differences in committee meetings, but any board member is free to speak in public about any issue at any time.
Pasternak said the board should consider a suggestion made by Birnberg a few times to act as a “committee of the whole” at times and air discussions more fully in public.
On another issue, Regina Truit, chair of the property committee, agreed to clarify with Barker Bus Company its safety and disciplinary practices and report the response of the district’s website. This resulted from a parent complaint that a Barker employee had been texting while transporting Millburn school children.
Truit said the district could not, by law, comment or ask Barker to comment, on disciplinary actions against specific drivers.
On another hot-button issue, parents of special education students continued to inquire about the status of M-SPEC, the Millburn-Short Hills Special Education Committee, following a recent decision by Crisfield to institute a new parent advisory committee for special education in the district.
M-SPEC members complained at the Jan.14 meeting that their group, which has been advocating for special needs children for about 20 years in the township, was being pushed aside for the new group.
In a statement read at Sunday’s forum M-SPEC president Laura Bencivenga said, “For the last 20 years, our mission has been the same: To work towards the understanding, respect, support and excellent education for all children with unique learning needs in our community. Our group has evolved as the needs of our community have evolved.”
She added, “M-SPEC shares the same goal as our PTOs, town-wide committees and all parent groups in this district: to work towards an excellent education for all children. Our focus is on students who have unique learning differences. Over the years, M-SPEC leaders have worked with our school leaders and others in our community to ensure students with disabilities receive appropriate supports and accommodations, to the benefit of teachers and other students. Through M-SPEC training, information sharing, parent support, advice, and resource sharing, and by bringing experts to the district, we help contribute to the success of all children. Most children in special education in our district are in regular classroom settings for the majority of the day. This means that innovative teaching methods such as co-teaching benefit all students. We can be proud of this.”
Bencivenga continued, “M-SPEC shares the same goal as our PTOs, town-wide committees and all parent groups in this district: to work towards an excellent education for ALL children. Our focus is on students who have unique learning differences. Over the years, M-SPEC leaders have worked with our school leaders and others in our community to ensure students with disabilities receive appropriate supports and accommodations, to the benefit of teachers and other students. “
The group’s president said the M-SPEC’s non-profit status should not be relevant to the administration’s decision not to include it as the special education advisory group.
She cited a number of township district parent groups that have a similar status and advocate for their causes,
Bencivenga concluded by asking the board to intervene with the administration and allow M-Spec to continue to serve in a formal advisory capacity with the district.
Waters replied the matter was considered within the jurisdiction of the administration and the decision was not up to the board.
Birnberg also read New Jersey Statute 6A:14-1.2(h), stating that, “Each board of education shall ensure that a special education parent advisory group is in place in the district to provide input to the district on issues concerning students with disabilities.”
Another parent of a special education student replied, however, that she did not think that the new group could provide the administration with the insight of M-Spec into what actually happens in the classroom.
Chapman added, as new chair of the board’s ad hoc special education committee, while she realized naming of the new committee was within Crisfield’s jurisdiction, she would like district special education director Juliana Kusz to give the committee an understanding of the advisory process.
The superintendent said he had not had a chance to meet with M-SPEC concerning the new committee because he had been in the process of forming the new committee between last September and this month.
Pasternak replied, however, that it might be valuable for district officials to tap into the “institutional memory” of M-Spec to get a sense of what had happened over the years.
Board members and Crisfield did seem receptive, however, to the idea of one parent that M-Spec be listed as an advocacy group on the new group’s membership roster.