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Tentative Operating Budget of $108.9 Million for 2014-15 School Year Presented to BOE

Jememiah Lim

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 • 1:27am

LIVINGSTON, NJ - The 2014-15 budget draft review produced an at-times heated discussion about district spending priorities at the Board of Education work session at Mt. Pleasant Middle School on Monday night.

District Superintendent John Alfieri introduced a tentative operating budget of $108.9 million for the 2014-15 school year.

“I’m proud to present a budget that is educationally sound, fiscally responsible and comes in under the state cap [which caps annual budget increases at 2 percent]” Alfierisaid.

The biggest budget priority, according to Alfieri, was to increase staffing at all levels of Livingston schools. He described quality staffing as the “meat and potatoes” of any school district.

A consistent theme of proactive maintenance in all aspects of running the district was present throughout the review. Staffing positions including teachers, special education assistants, technology consultants and maintenance personnel are all “critical to the smooth operation of the district,” according to Alfieri. He emphasized the importance of filling critical staffing positions at consistent intervals, as opposed to waiting for a breakdown to address an issue.

“You wouldn’t wait for your car to reach 30,000 miles to change the oil,” Alfieri said.

According to Alfieri, in terms of special education, Livingston Public Schools has actually reduced the number of out-of-district students from 130 to 95. The savings accrued will allow for one point person to monitor the educational progress of the 95 special-needs students that Livingston sends out of district. It will also allow Livingston Public Schools to better understand what the needs of out-of-district students are, so they can be assessed.

“There are times when you’re paying another district for five days of speech, but on closer examination the child might only be receiving two days of speech,” Alfieri said. “That’s unacceptable for the child and that’s unacceptable for us. We want a watchdog and someone who can connect with the parents of out-of-district children”

Among staffing proposals is an assistive technology technician to serve part-time to maintain iPads and other assistive technology that help some special-needs students vocalize.

“For some students, an iPad literally is their voice and technology changes their life,” Alfieri said. “If you’ve seen a child speak through assistive technology, it has to been seen to be believed.”

In addition to maintaining the technology, the technician will also serve as a familiar face for the students, according to Alfieri.

He said, “Those children have enough hills to climb in life without circulating them through nine different faces. I want someone who understands the technology and the children. If we do not do this, we are missing the mark as a district.”

Also being considered are life-skills assistants with CDL licenses to drive special-needs students into the Livingston community in an effort to connect them with the community. The students will participate in job training programs.

And, at the elementary level, six part-time employees, one at each elementary school, will operate as intervention enrichment specialists to assist children with their literacy skills.

Alfieri said, “At the K-2 level, I feel we are lacking the resources to address minor learning issues before they became major learning issues. It’s an assessment driven program. It’s an opportunity to help students when they are at their youngest—maintaining, changing that oil—before we get to 5th grade and have a child who is a non-reader.”

The proposal also calls for one half-time employee to function as an English as a Second Language (ESL) Teacher at each school, while a half-time teacher will operate at each school to assist with special education. 10 ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) full-time assistants will also help with special education.

“If you want to build special education programs that people want to stay in district for, you have to staff them properly,” Alfieri said. “The ABA model does not work with part-time assistants, as far as I know.”

In addition, the district will also look in-house to find an employee who is willing and able to serve part-time as a technology assistant. This employee will educate teachers and other staff on the most effective ways to use the various technological instruments (such as iPads) the district has bought.

Alfieri took care to mention that many of these positions were originally envisioned as being filled by full-time employees with benefits. However, in an attempt to save money for the district, those positions were downgraded to part-time employment.

“This meets the litmus test of being both fiscally responsible and educationally sound,” Alfieri said.

An announcement that at the middle school level, there will be a renewed emphasis on the fundamentals of grammar, was met with applause by the assembled audience. A course will be offered, entitled “The Craft of Language” that will take place three times a week and will give students explicit instruction on phonics, mechanics, sentence structure and other building blocks of proper English. In addition, a math intervention specialist will be hired full-time to combat declining math scores.

At the meeting, it was discussed that increased staffing at the high school will be needed to alleviate the growing school population. Crowded classrooms have been a concern for teachers and staff at the high school for some time, according to Alfieri. A half-time athletic trainer will also be hired to help assist the more than 500 Livingston High student-athletes.

After the presentation, the budget was submitted to the board for questioning and critique. Board member David Jasin wanted to clarify the articulation of goals for the technology assistant, noting that without meaningful benchmarks or proper supervision, the program could be ineffective.

Jasin and board member Arthur Altman also suggested the possibility of bringing in a part-time outside consultant with a high degree of expertise as opposed to using an in-house staff member.

“If you bring in a consultant for a year, you bring in a lot of flexibility and knowledge that you might not have with a teacher,” Altman said.

“That’s a corporate mindset, not an educational mindset,” Alfieri said. “An outside consultant may have all the knowledge, but they don’t have a relationship with the teachers. They may not understand what we’re trying to do, and though they can learn, it takes time we don’t have.”

Alfieri also noted that using an outside consultant model for various services at Heritage Middle School has resulted in the district paying more in terms of compensatory overtime.

“There’s no question in my mind that a respected and seasoned teacher who knows the school, knows the people and infrastructure” would be more effective than an outside consultant, according to Alfieri.

Board member Leslie Winograd noted that the increased staffing at the high school—three new full-time employees as well as additional part-time employees—might not be sufficient to deal with the growing high school population.

“With all the extra bodies and all the extra stressors we spend so much time talking about, I really wish we would be able to increase staffing [at the high school level],” Winograd said. “If we manage to save money in one area, I’d like to see [high school staffing] being made a higher priority.”

Alfieri agreed, noting that the staffing increase was less than half of what had been requested.

Winograd and Alfieri discussed the possibility of creating a kind of “B list” of items or services to purchase in the possibility of a surplus or of an increase in the budget to cap standards.

“Obviously we don’t want to spend every penny that’s in our pockets,” Winograd said. “But at every meeting, there is always one person who says, ‘Why don’t we spend the money to go to cap?’ That’s a valid question.”

Citing concerns over a tax increase, Altman suggested the implementation of a budget “option list” or “tear sheet” that would denote which programs, services or staffing jobs would have to be cut in order to maintain a lower or zero tax increase.

“This is a very thoughtful budget, but I am concerned about the fact that we are looking at a 2.8 percent tax increase,” Altman said. “Some people are struggling to afford taxes now. In order to do our due diligence, we should look at our options.”

He added, “I’m not suggesting we need to start cutting jobs. But maybe there are some jobs we can phase in over the next six months or the next year.”

Business Administrator Steven Robinson was amenable to the idea of creating cut options for the budget, but warned that the effort may hurt the district in the area where there is the most need.

“If you’re looking to make some cuts, the biggest part of the budget by far is staff pay and benefits,” he said.

Robinson also pointed out that significant cuts, while appealing in the short term, would not necessarily benefit the district in the long run.

“If you deplete something in the budget, capital works projects for example, that’s just going to come back to bite you in the butt years down the road,” he said.

Significant cuts were already made in accordance with sound fiscal principles, according to Alfieri. In its original iteration, the budget was $1.7 million over the state cap. He maintained that the cuts that he and Robinson made were in the best efforts to preserve critical staffing positions.

“I’ve had principals come to me offering to run on a zero or negative-one budget increase,” he said. “One principal offered to trade in every physical thing she had in exchange for the right people.”

“This isn’t the first draft of this budget. It’s more like the 50th,” he added.

There was also a semantic debate about what constituted a “must have” for a school district. Altman maintained that a prioritization of specific jobs or services would better serve to help the district run smoothly.

“I’m looking at the list of staffing jobs and wondering whether all of this is absolutely necessary,” he said. “Are all of these ‘must haves?’”

Board President Barry Funt argued that the needs of the district would be well served by the proposed budget.

He said, “The proposed staffing at the high school will only barely cover increased enrollment. There’s no law that says we can’t have a classroom of 35 to 40 students, but do we really want that here?”

“The schools are the crown jewel of Livingston,” he said.

Regarding the Calendar

The Board of Ed has decided that April 14, 15 and 16 will be partial days for Livingston Public Schools.

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