West Orange School District Faces Tough Fiscal Year as it 'Learns to Do More With Less'
Superintendent: Christie's cap hinders budget
[Editor's note: This is Part One of a two-part series on education in West Orange. Part Two will publish Wednesday. Part One discusses the cuts made in education and the state's budget. Part Two will focus on classroom size, teacher layoffs and privatization of schools.]
West Orange Superintendent Anthony Cavanna says his district of 6,600 students is in a fiscal crisis. As he prepares next year's budget under pressure from the state, he predicts that classroom size will be larger, extracurricular activities will be cut and more teachers will lose their jobs.
"There definitely will be layoffs," he said. "There's no question about it."
Cavanna said his school district — a mixture of urban and suburban — is in a cycle of learning how to do more with less.
The State's Cut
Though West Orange's school district budget rose steadily for most of the last five years, its state aid has declined.
The school budget, excluding federal cash, was just over $109 million five years ago. It steadily rose to $118 million in 2007-08 to $124 million in 2008-09 and then to $127.8 million in 2009-10.
It decreased slightly to $127.2 million for 2010-11. Of that, roughly $122.7, or 96.44 percent, comes from local taxpayers.
The percentage of state aid, however, has decreased from 6.05 percent in 2006-07 to 3.56 percent in 2010-11.
"We need to look at all the things outside the classroom we can possibly cut and economize or share services to save money," Cavanna said. "But, because of the magnitude of cuts, it will eventually hit the classroom."
Cavanna said the culprit is Gov. Chris Christie's 2 percent cap to the amount of the school budget that can be raised through property taxes next year.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the governor, said the superintendent is "misinformed" about the reason for the budget cap. "We're dealing with cuts right now that were the result of very poor budget choices left over from the prior administration," he said. "That is an inescapable conclusion when you look at the simple mathematical facts."
Drewniak said the state had to cut more than $800 million from the budget because former Gov. Jon Corzine left a $1 billion hole in education funding. "The state is essentially broke and there's no money left to fit that hole," he said. "Rather than complaining about it, the superintendent should be participating in getting our legislature to pass the reforms in support of that 2 percent cap."
State aid to West Orange has significantly decreased in the past year. In 2009-10, New Jersey gave $11.15 million to West Orange schools, in 2010-11, it shrunk by less than half to roughly $4.5 million.
"We're just starting the budget process," said Cavanna, "but (cuts to the school are) going to be significant."
Megan Brill, president of West Orange Board of Education, said the school district is spending more than the state mandate. "We have to cap our budget at 2 percent times every kid in the district," she said. "The problem that I see is that we're always over budget and we spend more than the state says we should be spending."
Drewniak said despite the school complaining about the cap, it's evident taxpayers want a change in the current school system. "I think it's also very clear that, given the rate of rejection by voters in the last school elections, taxpayers are demanding that superintendents do better," he said. "It's not just an issue related to the state, but it's the funding by school boards."
Brill said to help cut costs more, teachers likely will have to pay more for their health benefits next year, which will save the schools roughly $1 million. "We're looking now at $5 million to $6 million and that's another 100 jobs," she said, "but we don't know where we have 100 jobs to cut."
Brill said West Orange has "a luxury" of one art teacher in every building, but that's a luxury that may soon end.
"Our trouble going into this budget cycle is that we laid off a lot of middle management ... and now there's only one of those people in the department and that's going to be our struggle," she said. "It's not people now, it's going to be a program we get rid of and the staff that teach it."
With the cap, though, Brill said the district will have to count every penny of next year's budget.
"We definitely need to create a value for every dime that goes into the budget," she said.
[Editor's note: This story first published Dec. 7 at 9:50 a.m.]