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Monday, May 27, 2024

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Dennis BOE Looks to State After Approving Budget With $3.2M Shortfall

Christopher South
From left, Business Administrator Teri Weeks, solicitor Amy Houck Elco, Chief Administrator Susan Spiers and board President Nichol Hoff confer during the Dennis school board’s April 18 meeting.

By Christopher South

SOUTH DENNIS – The Dennis Township Board of Education has approved its nearly $18 million budget — whose shortfall has grown to $3.2 million — and is hoping the state will make up the gap after legislation proposed in Trenton is passed and then signed by the governor.

The district was looking at a $1.9 million shortfall in its preliminary budget, but that figure increased by the time the adoption vote came up on April 18. Chief Administrator Susan Spiers said, “The original budget was preliminary and did not include preschool costs, as well, and bringing back the K-5 teachers.”

Spiers said the K-5 positions were eliminated last year to cut costs in light of a revenue shortage of more than $1 million.

“We feel as a result class sizes are too high and do not meet levels of thorough and efficient,” she said. “So those positions were added back into the budget. At this point the BOE has approved the budget. We have requested a meeting with the county to review our concerns and determine the next steps. “

The Board of Education is hoping the Legislature will come to its rescue and restore some of the lost state aid. Board President Nichol Hoff said after the meeting that the district had lost 75% of its state aid, totaling more than $4.3 million, since 2018.

Hoff said the district is hoping that the proposed legislation will pass and go into effect soon. She was referring to Assembly Bill A-4161, which would establish a Stabilized School Budget Aid Grant program to restore certain portions of state school aid reductions.

The bill would permit certain school districts to exceed their tax levy growth limitation in the 2024-2025 school year and would appropriate $71.4 million to fund the program. Dennis Township can only levy another $220,000 to apply to its $3.2 million shortfall.

Assemblyman Erik Simonsen is one of the bill’s 13 sponsors and one of only two Republican sponsors. The bill passed the Assembly 52-20 on April 15.

Another bill, A-4059, sponsored by Simonsen and Assemblyman Antwan McClellan along with 11 Democrats, passed 74-0 with six abstentions. That bill would require the commissioner of education to permit certain school districts losing state aid to submit budgets after enactment of the fiscal year 2025 appropriations act.

The bill would allow those districts to use their “banked cap” toward the levy. In the Dennis Township School District, that would amount to a one-time 9.9% raise in the tax levy. Banked cap refers to the amount under the spending or levy caps that was not used. School districts and municipalities are able to apply that amount as credit toward future increases.

Various board members expressed frustration at the difficulty in dealing with state aid cuts under Senate Bill S2, which resulted in Dennis Township schools losing $4.3 million.

“We are doing everything we can,” said board member Mariam Khan. “Our hands are tied.”

Khan said Gov. Phil Murphy told some districts to shut down some of their schools, but she said Dennis Township doesn’t have extra schools to close.

The Dennis Board of Education has approved a 2024-2025 school year budget with a $3.2 million shortfall. Photo Credit: Christopher South

The Board of Education’s budget for the current school year saw the district with six fewer teachers – one each in grades K through 5 – and classroom sizes that increased from 22 students per class on average to between 28 and 35 students per class.

The teachers could have been hired back and class sizes reduced had voters passed a separate question on the November 2023 ballot that would have provided another nearly $1.3 million. The question was defeated by a vote of 957 to 717. Certain after-school programs were cut, and spring sports, such as baseball and softball, were able to continue due to private donations.

Last week, members of the public, including former and current teachers and staff, expressed concern about further cuts to programs and staff. One speaker, who identified herself as a full-time aide, said if she is reduced to part time she will lose her pension and health care. A 32-year teacher said the situation is saddening. “There is a loss of student achievement when you cut staff and crowd classrooms,” she said.

Kathy Wilde, who taught for 28 years in Dennis, also said students were negatively impacted by large class sizes. “It’s not the optimal situation,” she said.

One speaker told the Board of Education members and administration to prioritize solutions that have the least impact on the students’ education.

“I fear for the future of our education,” said Carlos Covarrubias, who described himself as a long-time teacher in Dennis Township.

Spiers said the administration would do everything possible to keep staff and not further impact class size. She said the administration was continuing to work with the school board on finding solutions to the funding situation.

She urged parents and teachers to send letters to district legislators and to legislators statewide and encourage them to back legislation that would ease the difficulty the school district finds itself in. Board members echoed the call for the public to reach out to legislators and ask them to pass bills such as A4161 and A4059.

Spiers thanked board member Joseph Berg for making trips to Trenton to speak with legislators and figure out how to make the proposed legislation work. Berg told the public to make contacting their legislators their “main priority for this budget.”

“We will do everything we can for each and every one of you,” he added.

Dennis school board member Joe Berg traveled to Trenton to sit down with legislators and seek relief on the $3.2 million budget shortfall for the 2024-2025 school year. Photo Credit: Christopher South

In the meanwhile, the district is taking measures to make a dent in the shortfall and possibly save some programs, including by having baseball and softball boosters raise money for the school.

At the same time, she said, the district had to preserve courtesy busing. She said courtesy busing, which is offered to students living less than 2 miles from school, is really a necessity due to hazardous traffic conditions.

Spiers said the district planned to give a tour to county education officials to show them the conditions created by the budget shortfall and the district’s inability to counter them due to state levy and spending caps. She said the district continues to look at the budget line by line to see what it can do without.

Contact the reporter, Christopher South, at csouth@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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