By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
VENTNOR – The false alarm fire call at the Ventnor Educational Community Complex Tuesday afternoon did the opposite of what one might expect. Although there was no danger to students, the unexpected fire call managed to cool down the somewhat heated discussion between the school board and administration about what to do about the school budget.
The Board of Education held a special meeting at noon Tuesday, March 3 in the cramped conference room in the Superintendent’s Office. The meeting was called to figure out how to reduce the $23 million school budget which includes an 8.5% increase in spending, mostly for Ventnor students to attend Atlantic City High School.
Although the board has been working for months to formulate its 2020-2021 school year budget, board members only recently learned that the Atlantic City Board of Education increased its tuition rate by $2,300 to $19,019 per student, a 14% increase over last year, which added $400,200 to the budget. Tuition for special education students will also increase by $80,210. In addition, tuition adjustments for prior years will add $579,329 to the board’s budget, for a total of more than $1 million.
According to Business Administrator Terri Nowotny, the district will have to use two years worth of banked cap funds to come up with the money but not before taxpayers are socked with a 6.3 cents tax rate increase. If there are no changes to the budget between the time Interim Executive County Superintendent of Schools Robert L. Bumpus approves it and the Board of School Estimate meeting on March 30, taxpayers will be asked to pay $1,307 on $150,000 of assessed valuation, which is $94 more than last year.
The Board of School Estimate, which includes two school board representatives and the three commissioners, will not approve the increase, school board President Douglas Biagi said.
Compounding the issue is news that the district would receive $140,000 less in state aid.
According to board member Kim Bassford, the district’s representative on the Atlantic City Board of Education, Atlantic City received a $17 million increase in state aid “which will slap us in the face next year,” she said.
She would like to scrutinize the Atlantic City budget, but it is not scheduled to be reviewed until the March 12 meeting, Bassford said.
“I’m only one vote. We have to find legislative relief. This is very unfair,” she said.
The city has contacted state legislators to see if there is anything that can be done to reduce the tuition adjustment from prior years, but there’s nothing that can be done about tuition because it is based on the state’s school funding formula.
Biagi repeatedly asked board members and administrators present to come up with some reductions, “but there’s not a whole lot of wiggle room,” he said.
According to a Dec. 16, 2019 efficiency letter from Bumpus, the district must increase its tax levy by 2%, a recommendation that has been put forth for several years as a way to make up for the loss of approximately $480,568 in state aid.
The letter praises the district for reducing the cost of legal services, and states the district is above the ratio of students to educational support personnel, but it spends $218 more per student for support services, $144 more on administrative costs, and $486 more for plant operations and maintenance.
Board members said the statistics are based on a 47% reduction in enrollment over the last 10 years.
The district has been able to keep the tax levy fairly stable by replacing retiring teachers with entry level staffers. Last year, it reduced administrative staff by one position through attrition. Three teachers are due to retire this year, and all will be replaced with teachers at lower salaries. However, those savings have already been incorporated into the budget, Nowotny said.
The board discussed ways to chip away at the budget increase, including reducing administrative staff or teachers, reconfiguring classes, asking for teachers to make concessions, switching to a different health insurance provider, and putting off some maintenance issues for another year, but none were substantial enough to make an impact, they said.
Ventnor operates its K-8 district with two schools in the VECC building, has a superintendent, business administrator, two principals and an administrator who handles special education and curriculum.
“It will be difficult with one less administrator,” Superintendent Eileen Johnson said. “There’s no way you can put extra responsibilities on our administrative team.”
After 90 minutes, the board unanimously agreed to send the budget as it is to Bumpus by Wednesday’s deadline and take the next two weeks to find reductions before it is taken to the Board of School Estimate meeting, which will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, March 30 at Ventnor City Hall.
“We will approve the school budget as it is to buy us some time, but we need a contingency plan to make the numbers more palatable. A two-week reprieve is our only option,” Biagi said. “The administrative staff will have to address it.”
Mayor Beth Holtzman said she still intends to meet with Atlantic City school officials about the tuition increase, but there are other areas of the budget that can be addressed, she said.
“I want to see a responsible budget that reflects our current enrollment,” Holtzman said. “And I want to see the recommendations in the efficiency letter addressed.”