The days are getting longer, the temperatures are getting warmer – and the discussions are getting heated. It is school budget season. At stake is not only the well being of the 1,625 students in the Highland Park School District, but also millions of taxpayer dollars (total expenditure budget of $28,839,594) affecting the well being of every resident in the community.
School administrators and school board members invite citizens to become involved this season by attending the two final events: On Monday, April 13, 7 p.m., Middle School Cafeteria, Interim Superintendent of Schools Israel Soto and School Board President Adam Sherman will host a question and answer session on the budget. On Monday, April 20, 7:30 p.m., Middle School auditorium, the formal budget hearing and final school board vote on the budget will take place. Mr. Soto has made three budget presentations to the public and board members at the Feb. 23, March 9 and March 23 school board meetings; anyone who has missed the meetings can watch the meetings on YouTube and can access the information on the school board’s website.
According to recent changes in the state school funding laws, school budgets that can be funded within the two percent cap (with some allowable waivers) no longer need public approval via special school elections in April. However, the public still is urged to participate in the process and make themselves heard through their elected representatives on the School Board.
“We are attempting to make the process as open and inclusive as possible. And we truly welcome – and need – input from all segments of the school community, including the taxpayers who have no kids in the school district. We are reviewing every source of revenue and every expense. The budget process is fluid. Nothing is set in stone. We are listening, and engaged in a very thought-provoking process,” said Mr. Soto. The reason for the “thought-provoking process” is simple – revenue into the district fails to keep up with increasing expenses. How to bring the thought-provoking process to a satisfactory conclusion, however, is very complex.
The bottom line is that the nearly $29 million dollar proposed expense budget represents a shortfall of about a half million dollars ($486,820 without additional staffing or shortfall of $573,106 with a proposal for additional staffing) ; this translates to a total tax increase of 4.1 percent or 4.47 percent requiring using the district’s permitted state waivers allowing an increase greater than the two percent cap. This represents an annual tax increase of $211.06 or $234.71 on a home with an assessed valuation of $150,000.
On the revenue end of the budget discussion, people at the informal presentations noted the challenges of inadequate state funding. The state’s school finance laws require a higher level of funding than the state is currently distributing to local districts resulting in underfunding schools by billions. The state aid to the Highland Park School District has remained flat for several years, representing a de facto cut in state aid because of inflation. Also causing pressure on the budget are the state mandates to implement the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) testing regime and the state charter school funding policy. The school district has to pay for every student being sent out of the district to a charter school ($20,000) per student, but the district’s overall budget expenditures particularly salaries, facility costs and even most programmatic costs cannot be reduced because of a handful of charter school exports.
On the expense side of the budget discussion, school board members and members of the public questioned particularly:
- $20,000 expenditure for “community engagement.”
- Technology upgrades and website expenses.
- Lack of funds for a reading improvement program/strategy.
- Paraprofessionals. Many members of the public turned out to the March 9th school board meeting to protest feared cuts in the paraprofessional staff. However, Superintendent Soto made it very clear that no cuts to the paraprofessional positions will occur.