Princeton School Board approves $100 million budget, cuts more than 20 classroom positions

Jennifer Bigioni of the PREA
Jennifer Bigioni addresses the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education on Monday night.

Teachers’ union representatives for the Princeton Public Schools criticized the school board Tuesday night for approving a $100.4 million budget for 2019-20 that eliminates more than 20 teacher and instructional assistant jobs, but includes no cuts to supervisor positions or school administrators. Parents also questioned the cuts, saying many of the positions that were eliminated hurt the district’s most vulnerable students.

Jennifer Bigioni, the union liaison from Princeton High School, said the administration is not sharing the burden as has been claimed. Most administrative positions were eliminated through attrition, and most of those cuts were support staff positions. “There were no supervisors, no assistant principals, no administrator capable of doing evaluations who were cut,” Bigioni said. “These are cuts to the heart and soul of the district — the people who have the contact with the students, who will keep class sizes down and electives running. This was not a shared burden. Whatever ‘scalpel cuts’ were done, I can’t see them. To me they look more like hatchet blows.”

The school board voted 6-4 to approve the budget after a public hearing. Board members Daniel Dart, William Hare, Deb Bronfeld and Michele Tuck Ponder voted against the spending plan. Board members Beth Behrend, Greg Stankiewicz, Brian McDonald, Jess Deutsch, Betsy Baglio, and Cranbury representative Evelyn Spann voted to approve the budget.

The total tax levy to fund the $100.4 million budget is $84 million. The tax levy includes $78.2 million for the general fund, an increase of $2 million over 2018-19, and $5.8 million for debt service, an increase of $586,000 over this fiscal year.

An owner of a home assessed at the town average of $838,562 will pay $9.643 in school taxes for 2019-20, an additional $264 over this fiscal year. The school tax rate is $1.15 per $100 of assessed property value, an increase of 3.2 cents per $100 over the current fiscal year. The per pupil cost listed in the budget is $20,683 per student.

State aid accounts for six percent of the budget. School officials said the district did not receive as much state aid as officials had hoped for, and that the district is under-funded by $1 million. The district will have to pay Princeton Charter School $372,783 more for 2019-20, and must pay for increases included in contracts with employee unions. The cost of health benefits has gone up. At the same time, the district’s reserves are dwindling, and there is $768,000 less available to use for the budget for 2019-20 compared with this fiscal year. Declining enrollment from Cranbury also translates into less tuition revenue in future years.

According to district officials, 10.2 full-time equivalent teacher positions were cut, including one teacher at Community Park Elementary School, one teacher at Littlebrook Elementary, four academic intervention services teachers, and 4.2 teachers at Princeton High School (the union says the number is higher). Ten instructional assistants were cut, and stipends for teachers to teach extra class periods were also cut.

In the administration, the district’s new director of communications position was eliminated, a human resources staff member position was cut, four parent education and outreach coordinator positions were eliminated, one high school secretary position will not be filled, and one high school building monitor position was eliminated.

Former school board member Dafna Kendal, who has two children in the district, blasted the board for making cuts she said would affect the district’s most vulnerable students.

“A budget reflects the board’s values. Which programs are funded, and which are eliminated, reflect the true priorities of the board. Like many others here tonight, I am disappointed by the choices you have made in this budget. By voting to approve this budget tonight, you will be taking services away from the most vulnerable students — special education, English language learners, low-income students, and minority students — which is contrary to the claimed focus on equity,” Kendal said.

“Yes, money is tight. But you have known since October that there was a large gap in the budget. You could have negotiated an extension to the PREA and PRESSA union contracts, gotten some savings on health care and increased tuition payments, but you didn’t,” she said. “You could have fulfilled your fiduciary duty and ensured that the Cranbury Board of Education pays fully for the special education services provided as was discussed last spring when the sending and receiving agreement was renewed and it was discovered that the Cranbury Board of Education paid $80,000 for special education for 46 students, down from $180,000 just a few years prior. But you didn’t. Now, teachers and services for the most vulnerable of students will be reduced.”

Kendal also criticized the board for deciding to install air conditioning in only one school this summer, saying that $200,000 in expenses for mold remediation has been one of the stated reasons for the tight budget. “This was one of the reasons it was critical to install air conditioning in all schools this summer, as the window units were cited as one of the reasons for the mold,” she said. “The decision to only air condition one school won’t alleviate the issue in the other schools, Community Park in particular, and will likely result in mold remediation expenses this fall.”

Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said he sees the story about equity and protecting the vulnerable differently than critics. “I believe we are still moving forward with our commitment to equity. We are doing it not by ourselves, but in partnership with others,” he said, as he described jobs that were created in the district recently to address equity issues.

Several parents begged the district to keep academic intervention services staff members at the elementary schools. Parents described how intervention staff members at Littlebrook Elementary provide support to struggling children so they can keep up in school. The staff members help the children catch up with reading skills and the rest of the curriculum. One parent choked up when she recalled how her daughter learned to love reading because of a staff member at Littlebrook.

A few parents questioned the district’s decision to expand the Spanish dual language immersion program at Community Park and provide transportation to students who want to switch schools to be a part of the program. They also questioned the district’s decision to create a gifted and talented program. But Cochrane said the district is not creating a gifted and talented program. He said the district is required by the state to have an “enrichment program.” He said the district is not looking to create a program that “will just provide for a narrowly defined, academically advanced student” but is creating a program “that will provide more opportunities for all students” with the resources the district already has. He also said officials hope the classroom size will be lowered in other elementary schools if some students are bused to Community Park for the dual language immersion program.

Tuck Ponder said she was voting no on the budget because cuts were being made that would hurt the most vulnerable students. “What I don’t see is pain in advanced placement or in the orchestra, or areas we like to hold up and bandy about and say what a fine school district we are,” she said. “Any district that does not take care of the least of us is not a fine school district…a whole bunch of people aren’t going to feel any pain.”

Dart and Bronfeld said one of the reasons they could not vote yes on the budget was because of the agreement with Cranbury for funding for their students who need special education services at the high school. Cranbury used to pay $180,000 per year for those services, and now only pays $80,000. An audit has not been done yet to determine whether the amount is correct or should be higher. Spann said the expenses for students must be itemized. by the district and audited.”We can’t just throw you money,” she said.

Bronfeld said the district needs to be creative in finding ways to cut costs and bring in money.

Behrend, who is serving her second year on the school board and is president this year, said the district’s budget problems have been building for years and the board was focused on the referendum last year. “We started a healthy cycle this year,” she said, adding that the board has been “rebooted” this year and will “make the magic happen.” She said the district will start talking about budget issues at a board retreat this summer. She said normally the board does not begin to talk about the budget until January.

Baglio and Bronfeld took issue with her statement. Baglio pointed out that the board’s finance committee works all year, and every time someone is hired for a new program, the board considers the costs.

“I disagree that the referendum was all we ever did last year,” Bronfeld said, adding that the board should look at cuts, new ways of running programs, and new revenue sources right away instead of waiting until late summer or fall.

After public comment, Hare asked whether the board could reconsider some cuts, and hold off on approving the budget.

Behrend said she didn’t think it was the board’s role to question the administration’s proposed budget and cuts. “Professionals spent months on this. It is important to support them,” said said. “For us to start delving into the numbers and making trade-offs — I don’t think that is our role.”

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