The Lakewood, NJ, Township Committee approved a resolution Thursday night, already supported by the Board of Education, to slash the school district budget by $7.63 million.
The cuts bring the tax-rate increase down to zero, meaning the tax levy will be the same as last year’s at $71.6 million. The school board is expected to officially approve the new budget at its meeting Monday, at which some line item changes to the spending plan could be made.
The heavy reductions, which will likely mean dozens of eliminated positions and severe cuts in supplies and special education tuition, prompted outrage from some residents. They fear for the fate of their district’s six schools, which are already failing.
Irene Connor, a school nurse for 36 years who is retiring this year, said the committee should insist on a budget that guarantees a solid education for public school students.
“You have the power and the responsibility to make this a community where people will want to work and live, but most of all where they may educate their children,” she said, according to a prepared speech she planned on reading at Thursday’s meeting.
To be sure, Committeeman Raymond Coles came into the meeting with his own reservations.
“While I’m in favor of bringing down the tax burden . . . I want to hear from the professionals in Lakewood schools that they can deliver a thorough and efficient education with the zero-increase budget,” he said.
Coles cast the only vote against the resolution. When asked after the meeting if he believed the school budget would provide for a sufficient public school education, Coles said: “My personal feeling was i didn’t want to take the chance.”
Cole and Mayor Steven Langert contended after the meeting that the school board proposed a radical tax increase initially so that the voters would reject the tax levy and force the committee to make the hard decision to order a budget cut.
“It was completely irresponsible to put a budget like that forward,” said Coles.
They also said the committee was deceived because it was presented with plan to cut the school budget when the school board had considered three proposals, one of which offered lesser reductions.
Still, Langert was pleased with the end result: no increase in the school tax rate. And he rejected arguments by parents and teachers that the cuts would affect students’ education.
“I don’t think money is the problem,” Langert said. “They’re (school board) not spending it in the proper places.”
Coles and Langert said they were told by district officials that the the board will make changes to the budget, including cutting more from administration salaries and less from teacher salaries.
“I’m praying that the board at their meeting (Monday) will make this budget more palatable,” Coles said.
Despite the committee’s misgivings about the cuts to the school budget, it approved the resolution with one dissenting vote despite being able to table the action until the deadline Wednesday by which it must certify the school tax levy.
During the committee meeting Thursday night, school board members criticized the committee for deciding for the first time in years not to pay for garbage pickup at the schools – a $176,220 cost for which the district budget will now have to make room.
“It’s totally unfair,” board Vice President Meir Grunhut said.
Langert said it was done out of budgetary concerns.
“The taxpayer is picking it up either way,” he said. “If it’s not in our budget it’s in their budget. Let them take some fiscal responsibility.”
Once the school board votes on the budget, it will go to the Ocean County superintendent of schools for approval.