SUMMIT, NJ – In a special set of bookended meetings called to formally introduce the 2021-22 Summit Public School budget, the Summit Board of School Estimate (BOSE) met to discuss, then the Summit Board of Education (BOE) voted to pass a tentative $75,633,810 budget which, after accounting for anticipated revenues, equates to a net $68,506,754.
The budget, a 2.44 percent increase over the previous year’s budget, exceeds the state two percent cap and requires $296,660 in “banked cap” be utilized. If ratified by the Summit Board of School Estimate on March 29, the average Summit home — assessed at $420,100 — will see $114.91 added to its existing $9,241.28 Schools-related tax bill.
According to Summit Assistant Superintendent for Business Lou Pepe, if not for a one-time healthcare charge of $650,000 the budget would show only a 1.4 percent increase. There was much scrutiny placed on programming and, after much consideration, it was determined that using the banked cap was necessary in order for Summit to continue to provide an excellent education, he said.
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Because Summit is a Type I school district, school budgets are presented before the BOSE instead of as a ballot item to the public. The BOSE is composed of two members of the BOE, two members of Common Council, and the mayor, who casts a vote only in the event of a tie. Members of the BOSE are Mayor Nora Radest, Councilman David Naidu, Councilwoman Susan Hairston, Board of Education President, and Board of Education Operations Committee Chair Michael Colon.
“It’s been a hard year for everyone nationally and internationally,” Radest said as she turned the meeting over to Superintendent Scott Hough and Pepe. “But that doesn’t change what we do here in our community, which is to focus first and foremost on the education of our children.”
Hough gave what amounted to a state-of-the-District report, painting a rosy picture of the town, District he is charge of, and its ability to deliver quality public school education to the community.
He said that Summit consistently ranks as one of the top school districts in the state, and one of the best places to live. School success, he said, is largely in part of the District’s ability to “recruit, develop, retain, empower, and support” outstanding teachers.
He said that Summit gives educators the tools they need to excel. He said that 75 percent of the teachers at Summit High School have a Master’s Degree.
“We are very fortunate here in Summit,” he said.
He addressed the “strengths” of the District in its academic rigor: its Advanced Placement and Honors classes; comprehensive curriculum; number of National Merit nominations and finalists, and its continuing education programs. He said that 92 percent of students continue their education after graduating.
He emphasized that “academic rigor” is evident at all grade levels, starting at the elementary schools.
Hough also said that Summit excels in its sports, arts, and extra-curricular programs.
The budget, he said, shows an eagerness to continue to develop in the areas of STEAM and technology; socio-emotional wellness and mental health; inclusivity and anti-bias teaching and learning.
He said that this budget plans for the District’s technology needs over the next three to four years.
“You can look at the emphasis we have placed on technology over the past five years,” he said. Zero-based budgeting has allowed the District to fulfill technology requirements based on actual need, he said.
The pandemic has presented challenges to all school Districts, and Summit has responded well, Hough said. He said that all students in grades K-12 have a Chromebook for remote learning.
“This budget allows for replacement cycles to be met as well as maintaining our network infrastructure,” he said. He said that the budget provides for devices at their “end-of-life” to be replaced every four to five years.
“We have to plan ahead to do that,” he said. This is not just devices, he said, but infrastructure and software and the ability for the teachers to provide remote instruction.
Technology has been budgeted for $1,355,808 in 2021-22, up from $1,222,663 in the current budget.
Hough said that because of the pandemic, the need for social-emotional support has been greater than ever.
The budget, he said, is created with strict adherence to Board goals. He said that it is “needs- focused” across the District, rather than driven by any specific department or program.
Pepe’s presentation addressed the cost of education. He broke the budget down by type of cost, with 81 percent of the funds — or $59 million — covering instruction, personal services, special ed, maintenance, support services (school administration), regular programming, and tuition expenses for out-of-district Special Education students.
He said that the budget keeps most “dollars in the classroom.”
Managing health care costs has been a huge consideration in this budget. The annual renewal rate increase is expected to be between four and seven percent, costing the District $402,000. Pepe said that many have put off elective surgical procedures because of COVID and that they expect to see an increase there.
There will be a mandated $650,000 reduction of employee contributions. New Jersey enacted “Chapter 44, ” the New Jersey Educators Health Plan, to provide relief to educators for their high healthcare contribution costs.
“This is great for the employee side of the equation,” he said, there will be “significant reductions” in their contributions. They will see higher co-pays, but their total out-of-pocket expenses will be reduced. The downside for the District is that costs will increase. This amounts to $1,052,310 increase, or 11.61 percent. The total healthcare budget is $10.2 million.
The remaining 19 percent of the budget, Pepe said, has been fairly consistent with past years. This covers many categories including maintenance of school facilities, media services / library, improvement of instructional services, athletics, co-curricular activities, special-ed / preschool disabilities, and student transportation services.
Pepe reviewed the state aid numbers. He said that based on the figures released February 25, Summit will receive $3.3 million which is 4.5 percent of the budget. This includes an 82 percent increase in special education aid, an increase of $339,708.
In other revenues beyond state aid, $68,506,754 will be raised by taxes. Summit will receive $1,654,206 million in budgeted fund balance reserved for taxpayer relief; $479,684 from tuition for students from other districts; and there will be $489,571 withdrawn for capital reserve projects — $129,000 for paving at Lawton C.Johnson Summit Middle School, $33,200 for air conditioning at Franklin Elementary, and $327,547 taken from capital reserve for concrete and flooring repair at Summit High School and Washington Elementary, $93,625 and $233,922 respectively.
The bulk of the revenue remains the local tax levy, he said.
“At the end of the day, we came down from our draft budget,” Pepe said, but there is still a need to make a request to use $296,660 in banked cap.
“We don’t have money laying around in money bags,” Pepe said. “Banked cap is spending authority.”
He said that the banked cap results from coming in under cap in previous budgets, which allows the District to “bank” the amount of money spent below two percent.
A total of $1.6 million in banked cap is available. This amount of unused spending must be completed by the end of the budget year and cannot be deferred or incrementally completed over a longer period of time.
“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” he said, and money expires after three years.
He said that Summit has been “very frugal” in what has been done with the budget “year over year.”
After the presentation, members of the Board of School Estimate asked questions.
Naidu said he was speaking as a dad of a high school and a middle school student, and thanked the District for their accomplishments during the pandemic. “It is absolutely incredible” what has been able to be done, he said.
He asked if the budget would work if school was to be held full-time, in person, and if it supported extra-curricular activities and the spring athletic season.
The answer was yes on all counts.
Naidu asked about funding from the CARES act and how it would impact the District. Pepe said there are five allocations of grant funding and that money has “pretty much” been committed. Grants provided for PPE, devices, filters, and plexiglass. The biggest one from the federal government for $1.1 million is earmarked for HVAC at Summit High School, he said.
Hairston said she appreciates the “outstanding’ thought that was put into the budget. The bulk of her comments were inaudible because of the thick plexiglass she was speaking behind.
Donna Miller asked if there are line items for what is invested “in the classroom.” She asked particularly about students who might need academic remediation after this year. Hough said they are doing assessments to address those needs, and this budget will find money to put toward any “learning loss.”
Radest asked if any summer programs would be considered. Hough said, “There is some funding available,” and some plans are being made. He said that contract negotiations with teachers are “ongoing.”
Pepe said they have prepared for an “adequate settlement.”
Radest said that, even amid all the pandemic concerns, she “rarely” has heard complaints about what is going on in the schools–even fewer than in typical years, she said.
“You are thinking about children,” she said. “And their parents, and what they are dealing with.”
At the second half of the meeting — the Board of Education portion — Miller said this was the final opportunity to comment on the budget that will be passed onto Union County and then, if approved, for final vote by the BOSE.
Miller said that the budget takes into consideration “the special needs” that students might have after a year of learning during the pandemic.
Colon said that the “bottom up” process “scrutinized” every item to determine expenses.
The two percent target, he said, is “an imperfect science.”
“While we seek to have a budget that is two percent or below,” we need to maintain an excellent educational system, he said.
The issue we had this year was health care costs, which was “an extraordinary line item,” he said. He said that it was “not an accepted result that the District would accept the over-two percent budget increase and that “we would bite the bullet and move on.”
“There was a lot of diligence,” he said. “This budget is in the best interest of our students.”
Board Member Yon Cho said that even though this is a single year budget, it is part of a multi-year process, and it has benefited from previous banked cap and reserves.
“We were mindful about trying to maintain the quality of the program and avoid any cuts,” he said.
Board Member Chris Bonner said that the Rutgers mental health program is a great example of the investment the District has put into the needs of every kid.
It’s just “classic Summit,” he said. This is not the time to take things away from kids, he said.
He quoted something that he said Colon had said in an Operations Committee meeting, “If you want a great school you have to invest in it.”
Miller said if it had not been for shrewd, smart investments “we would not have been able to do the things we have done this year.”
“Investment is important; this is not the year to slice something,” she said.
Board Member Vanessa Primack said that the two percent number and going into banked cap is “a big deal and is not taken lightly.” She said that it makes sense not to cut programming that would take away from the students just to stay under cap.
In the public comment portion of the meeting, Former City Councilman Tom Getzendanner said that this is not the year for a budget to come in over the two percent cap.
“Enrollment is down, yet the budget is out of control,” Getzendanner said.
“In this day and age, this is not the time to be exceeding cap,” he said. He asked that the Board reconsider its decision.
The budget will now be sent to the Executive County Superintendent of Schools for approval. The final budget will be voted on by the BOSE on March 29.