In a recent Sunday feature entitled "Deconstructing school spending: Budget reporting baffles public," Eric Obernauer put forth a useful clarification of some important aspects of school finance for NJ Herald readers. A central thesis was that there are many misconceptions about what should be relatively simple concepts like per pupil spending and local tax caps. In looking at 38 local districts and their relative per pupil spending in 2012-13, I was pleased to see the Newton Public Schools right in the middle of the group, whether looking at the budgetary cost, which is the apples to apples comparison, or the total cost, which includes variable items like transportation and tuition. Why is middle of the pack on school spending a good place to be? If it's too high, taxpayers will rightly have an issue. If it's too low, parents and students will wonder if the community is truly doing what it should to support its schools financially.
I was particularly drawn to the section subtitled, "Declining enrollments prompt hard choices." Prior to 2012, Newton experienced annual declines in student population, just like every other district in Sussex County. In the decade from 2002-2012, our student enrollment went from 1,683 to 1,356, while staff levels were reduced over time by a comparable level. Making cuts to staff levels while maintaining student programs required fiscal discipline and strategic decision-making. This is especially true in Newton, which has historically dealt with a difficult financial situation given the limits on tax ratables and modest family incomes on average.
The Newton Board of Education has operated in a fiscally responsible manner even as student enrollment began to turn upward. After state aid reductions in 2010-11, we substantially reduced our operating budget while maintaining all student programs and minimizing staff attrition. The Board made strategic choices in 2011-12 which decreased the local tax levy yet provided nearly $1 million in much needed facility upgrades. In 2012-13 we undertook a community process that resulted in the construction of a synthetic turf athletic field within the operating budget using one-time revenues, targeted spending cuts and a 1% tax increase. To allay concerns over the charges associated with that project, Newton agreed to a 15% reduction in tuition and spread payments over four years to minimize disruption to sending district budgets.
The Board continues to look for ways to reduce expenses, approving cost savings measures through health insurance carrier changes, solar energy projects, and a clean energy initiative. Our business administrator worked this year with Project Self Sufficiency to secure federal grant funding to implement Project Launch Newton, a 21st Century Community Learning Center that provides quality after-school programs for students in grades 4-8. It is an ongoing priority for us to provide effective programs for our students in an efficient, cost-conscious manner for our community.