MADISON, NJ - Residents can expect a 2 percent tax increase in school taxes for the coming year, District Business Administrator Gary Lane said at the Tuesday, March 19, budget forum. The estimated increase on a home valued at $659,938 is $139.15 a year, or $11.60 a month, he said. Lane said the borough revaluation has been taken into account.
The hot button topic for the evening centered on extra curricular activity fees, which Lane said would bring in activity fees revenue of $82,000. “This doesn’t seem like a big number,’ he said, “but without those fees, we could lose a staff member.” Lane said $1.4 million was budgeted for sports and other activities, with an estimated $150,000 raised by booster clubs.
One parent said she was asking for accountability. “There needs to be transparency,” she said and had a philosophical question. If these activities are considered a ‘core’ part of a student’s education, why are families being charged for their children to participate? “It’s pay to play,” another parent said, adding that as a public high school, there shouldn’t be extra charges.
But Superintendent of Schools Michael Rossi countered that “we want to provide every possible opportunity for students, but when you’re faced with a budget crisis do you reduce staffing, cut out courses or hold larger classes?” Activity fees, he said, were one way to fill the gap in the budget. He noted that residents pay for sports provided by the township, even when volunteers serve as coaches.
Resident Steve Wells said of the high cost of education and extra fees, “The problem is in Trenton.”
A comment also came up about taking an open roll call, when some activity directors announce who has not paid a fee. Finance Committee Chairman Patrick Rowe said he would look into that issue. He added that there are mechanisms for any student who cannot afford a particular activity to take part.
Rossi highlighted several accomplishments during the year, such as the high school being ranked number six by NJ Monthly Magazine. Three Madison schools were named Reward Schools, out of 12 throughout the state. He said the rotating block schedule is working out well at the high school, with a single unit lunch. Students have time for tutorials and club activities, he said. More smart boards are being purchased, thanks to Madison Education Foundation grants. The technology task force is upgrading networking hardware and a new math program will roll out during the next two terms. The curriculum committee is deciding between Everyday Math and Math in Focus.
Lane said there are four budget levels: operating capital outlay, grants and debt service. Because education is labor intensive, he said that salaries, pensions and health benefits make up 81.76 percent of the CE budget. Employee contributions will increase over the next few years, he said. He anticipates a 15 percent increase in health benefits and 5 percent in dental. “Everybody’s feeling the pinch,” he said of the effort to keep a handle on expenses.
Several questions came up about utilities and energy reduction. “We’re working with students to reduce electricity by 5 percent,” Rossi said. Use of natural light and partnering with the borough, which has its own electricity utility, are two areas being explored. He noted how most schools leave all their lights on late in the evening, which he is addressing. Rossi said the science faculty is involved with initiatives such as composting. Windows are being replaced at the high school, which will show a return investment in energy savings.
“It’s a tough tightrope to walk,” Lane said of the balancing act in revenue and expenses. “We try very hard to at least maintain what we provide, within the constraints and rules set by the state.”