Summary of March 2d school board meeting

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Mar 22, 2011, 3:54:32 PM3/22/11

Sorry for the delay but here is a summary of the March 2d school board meeting.

It is easiest for me to summarize the meeting chronologically, and not by order of importance. So, here goes.

Mr. Isola (Middle School North Principal) and Dr. Pennell (Ardena Elementary Principal) gave a presentation regarding a contemplated new report card system. Essentially, there is a sentiment that the current report card system may be a bit antiquated, having been around in America since the mid-1800s. It is also believed that the report cards do not provide a full enough picture of the students' mastery of concepts, strengths and/or weaknesses, and that research supports a new method of communicating student progress. That is a huge over-simplification of the issue, so feel free to contact Mr. Isola or Dr. Pennell with specific questions.

The board is planning to phase in a new report card system starting with a few select classes at each building for grades 1 & 2 and grades 5 & 6 starting with the 3d marking period of this year as a pilot program. Then, select classes from grades 3 & 4 and 7 & 8 the following year will get a sampling of the proposed new report cards.

If the final recommendation is to go to the new reporting system, it will not fully go into effect until the 2012-13 school year.

Bd. Member Jeanette Smith asked Mr. Isola and Dr. Pennell what will they do with the results of this new view of each students' progress, asking if students have mastered certain skills for their age/grade level early in the academic year, will they be accelerated to the next grade at that time? And, if the reverse is found, that students have not mastered those skills, will they be sent back to the appropriate level until they have mastered those skills? The answer was they will continue with their present delivery of instruction - differentiated instruction; that is, keep the students where they are and give the more advanced students more challenging work and the students who are struggling remedial services, such as basic skills and the like.

Another noteworthy discussion took place around the suggestion by the New Jersey School Boards Association (a non-partisan organization to which all public school boards are required to belong, by payment of annual dues to the tune of $35,000 or so), that all school boards consider a resolution that would remove the budget vote from the annual school election if the board comes in with a budget that is at or below the 2% tax levy cap increase. Makes for very good television, so I would suggest you go to or check it out on Channel 77.

In a nutshell, Board member Tim O'Brien strongly opposed the resolution. He opined that this is the one area that the taxpayers have an opportunity to communicate with the board and that, essentially as I heard it, the right to vote is too precious and inherent in our American tradition to be taken away. He would support the resolution if it were worded that the budget being presented holds taxes flat or results in a decrease (-0%), but that any increase should get the publics' input.

Bd. member, Pat Dowling, offered that the township budget does not get voted on and that they are bound by the 2% cap, just as the schools are, so why not do what the township does and not require a vote? To which Mr. O'Brien responded saying he does not agree that the township budget should not be voted but that, since the bulk of our tax dollar (I think it is about 80 cents of every $1.00) goes to the school district and impacts the taxpayers considerably more than the township budget, all the more reason to oppose the resolution.

The superintendent, Enid Golden, supported the resolution. To quote, Dr. Golden said that voter turnout is "pathetically low" each year. The implication, as I heard it, was that since most people choose not to vote anyway, why not remove the option to vote under these circumstances? Dr. Golden misstated the voter turnout numbers for last year, which were at a record high of 34% (up from maybe 20% in previous years). She had the numbers pegged at 12%, while Mr. Sanasac put them at 14%. To put last year's voter turnout into context, I recall it reported that 42% of those eligible to vote in the US did so in the last presidential election. I personally do not consider 34% voter turn out in a local election "pathetically low."

In the end, there were not enough votes to support the resolution. Mrs. Smith, Mr. Flaherty, Mr. O'Brien, and Mr. Tanala opposed the resolution, while Mrs. Cerretani, Mrs. Roses, Mr. Dowling, Mr. Moscato all supported it.

My message to you is and always has been, educate yourselves on the budget and the budget process and vote your conscience, whatever that may be. After all, a vote on the budget is not just a commentary on WHAT they are spending, but HOW your tax dollars are being spent.

Speaking of the budget, the tentative numbers have us at a flat 0% increase for next year. Sounds good. Sounds even better when you consider that the budget includes ALL SPORTS AND CLUBS restored and paid for by the board (aka, your tax dollars). I thought I heard Mr. Sanasac say PAL would continue to run, but I could be wrong on that. The agreement with PAL was for just one year and would have to be extended by a board vote, which I have not seen take place to this point.

The good news continues when you hear that the budget includes purchasing new buses, instead of leasing them over time, as well as purchasing some new curriculum and performing some building improvements.

A parent from Ardena Elementary School asked the $64M question (ironically, approximately the same amount of our tax levy) - how is the board able to do all of this this year when they could not do it last year? Where is all the money coming from? Well, the district did get about $1M more in state aid for 2011-12, so that certainly helps. Plus the district still has the federal jobs money, another approximately $1M.

However, the main reason why they can do it this year and not last is because the board is in the final year of its 3 year, 3.75% annual salary increase for the teachers' union (the HTEA). What that means is, unless and until a new contract is settled, salaries remain at their present level - translation, a 0% salary increase for 2011-12 budget as we sit here today. So by not offering salary increases at this time, the budget is flat by about $2M.

Not only does salary remain flat, but so do all other terms and conditions of employment. This is only true for the HTEA members (teachers, secretaries, custodial/maintenance, cafeteria, bus drivers, school nurses, media) and not the administrators in the HTAC union (principals, vice-principals, supervisors, directors) or the staff at central office (superintendent, assistant superintendents (2), business administrator, or their support staff, none of whom are members of a union).

It is up to the board and the union to sit at the negotiating table, the first meeting of which was held on March 15, and decide what the terms of the next 3 years will be.

For the first time since.....I don't know if ever, the board has hired a professional negotiator which, while an expense, I personally view as a wise investment.

We have a clean slate now, voters. What happens with that clean slate is truly up to you. Is this an important election year? I would say so. Planning on voting on the budget and the candidates? I certainly hope so.

One more interesting piece of information regarding the budget is something known as a "cap bank," which our Finance Chair and Board VP, Gene Tanala, reported this budget includes. Is it a good thing, this "cap bank?" You decide.

Under the 2% cap law, a school district that does not use all of its allowed increase can "bank" the unused portion for use in any or all of the subsequent three budget years. So, in the case of Howell, if the board goes to the voters with a zero this year, then the board could go to the voters with a maximum of the 2% cap plus any or all of the unused 2% from this year in any of the next 3 years.

As proposed, the levy would be flat this budget cycle (except for non-cap items, like health benefits increases, unexpected special education costs, pension expenses, and revolving debt service items, so expect your taxes to increase regardless). Next year, the board could present a budget up about $1.28M (the annual allowed 2% increase on a $64M levy) plus as much as an additional $1.28M (the banked cap from this year, since none of it was used).

And, if the board proposes to use its banked cap in a future year and the budget is defeated, the Town Council would be looking at the total increase proposed before it recommends its reduction - not just the annual allowed 2% amount. And, generally cutting from a higher number yields a higher number than cutting from a lower number to start with would. Even though Mr. Sanasac said the "cap bank" was intended to discourage the "use it or lose it" philosophy, I am concerned that the cap bank will just postpone the "use it or lose it" business practice to a future year.

Do I support a budget increase this year? No. As I said at the board meeting, I am a fan of a zero. However, I am a fan of a true zero. Not a zero this year and as much as a possible 4% increase in a subsequent year.

The use of the cap bank is up to the board of education and who that board of education is (and if and how the cap bank is used) is entirely up to you when you pull the levers at the polls next month.

Please mark you calendars. The annual school election, for 3 vacant seats on the board and the budget, is on WEDNESDAY, (not Tuesday, as usual), APRIL 27, 2011.

Feel free to contact me directly if you would like to know who I am supporting for school board in this election. I will use other forums to offer my endorsement, out of respect for how this forum was established.

On a final note, the board also approved the Howell PAL to operate a preschool/day care program at the Southard School, called Little PALS. There was not mention of the rental fee to be charged PAL nor the cost of the program to its users.   Thank you. Amy Fankhauser

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