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Mount Ephraim Board of Education Discusses Potential Cuts; RIF Notices

Author: Anne Forline | South Jersey Observer

MOUNT EPHRIAM N.J. May 10, 2016--Members of the public addressed the Mt. Ephraim Board of Education (BOE) Monday night to ask about rumors that “everything” is being cut from the budget and that district teachers have received reduction in force notices, or RIF. Several members of the public expressed their concern about program cuts and voiced their concern in support of all art, music, and world language programs.

Board President, Pat Blaylock responded: “All of the rumors are not true. Everything is not being cut. It is a matter of trying to decide which programs, what we can afford to keep, and what we can’t afford to keep. We know how important the programs are. I don’t like seeing all of the cuts, but we have to face that everything can’t stay. We can’t afford all of the programs. Do we have final answers yet? No.”

She continued: “Unfortunately, the budget is due now. We will not know the full extent of our funding until August.”

She also spoke of recent meetings that had taken place about the budget: “Two weeks ago on a Friday night, the personnel committee met and discussed our options. Last Friday night, the finance committee met and we went through the budget again to see if we missed anything and to see if there is anything else we can do. Every meeting, everybody comes out and speaks on the programs. We don’t want to cut, but our budget will not allow us to keep all of the programs. We have to decide which programs we are keeping.”

As for the RIF notices, Ms. Blaylock said: “They are done as a precaution. Nobody wants to do that, but we are required by May 15 to do that in case there is a chance that somebody may not have a position.”

Ms. Blaylock also responded to the question concerning the number of teachers who are retiring and how that will help the budget.

“As you have heard over the past month to six weeks, the number was significantly higher before those teachers put their retirement notices in. That saved a huge amount of money and saved jobs. We weren’t talking two positions, we were talking eight positions,” she said.

A parent asked how things got to this point and if there was a major crisis.

Ms. Blaylock responded: “When we look at the financials – in last year’s budget, we used over $500,000 in surplus. It was not earmarked to all be used last year. Unfortunately, had we not followed that advice, we would have had more money for this year, but we would have had to make cuts last year. So last year, we got away without having to make any [cuts] so we don’t have that $500,000. As [finance manager] Mr. Gerson explained, we earn surplus every year. Some has to be saved for the following year. We used more last year than we should have. We spent our savings account and now we don’t have it to spend.”

Bill Gerson added: “To clarify, each year that a surplus is generated, it doesn’t get used for that year, it goes in the year after. So any surplus we generate this year, we would use for the 2017-18 school year. That is how it works.”

Superintendent Leslie Koller said: “When the issue came up about six weeks ago, one of the things that’s been said and it’s worth repeating: There has been instability in the business office for several years. It is not about blame at this point. I know everyone wants to know how it happened and how we can prevent it from happening again. One of things that Mr. Gerson is doing is providing stability in our business office. He is getting our finances in order and we need to maintain that so this does not happen again.”

Board member Carl Ingram stated: “Our tax rate has pretty much been stable on the school board end. We chose to do that to help save the taxpayers money. In hindsight, that has come back to hit us. But if we would have used our bank cap, we could’ve used up to 6% last year, I believe, but it would’ve been a significant hike for the taxpayers. This is not a fun thing for anyone involved.”

Pat Blaylock said: “Mr. Ingram is right: On the bank cap issue, last year, the county superintendent came and encouraged us to raise the taxes to the maximum that we could. We made a decision as a Board not to do that. You have so many years to use that 6% and then it is gone. Had we used it, it would’ve raised the base of our budget higher for every year. We would have more money coming in, but it would’ve been too much of a burden on Mt. Ephraim to raise the taxes that much. Should we have raised it? I don’t know. Our base would’ve been higher, but we didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”

A parent asked about data, cost benefit, and investment of RTI, if it is an extreme expenditure, and what the growth and acceleration are for RTI.

Mrs. Koller responded: “RTI is basic skills. There is a line item in the budget for basic skills. In no way is RTI an excessive cost because we would be having basic skills anyway.  RTI is costing us a reading specialist and a math specialist. We’ve cut the reading specialist and the math specialist at Kershaw in this budget. We’ve maintained the reading specialist and math specialist at Mary Bray. The only cost of RTI is the benchmarking. The reading specialist and the benchmarking are mandated. We have to have those. We don’t have to have math specialists but our district is choosing to have a math specialist.”

She continued: “The reported data is the progress from the benchmarking that the student has made from September to January to May and also any students who are progress-monitored in between. As far as the data for students improving overall, I don’t know whether it’s because we are totally standards based on common core, if it’s because we have all new curriculum, technology, or the RTI. All of these things went into place at the same time. I can give specifics from Star reading and Star math.”

Mrs. Koller said that the most recent data she has is for last year. “I am waiting until the last benchmark comes in June and I will do it over the summer. I do have the data from last year, which I presented in last year’s budget hearing and then I added it over the summertime,” she said.

A question was asked about a gifted and talented program and if one side of the spectrum is being catered to and not the other.

Mrs. Koller responded:  “We do not have an overall gifted and talented program. The State mandates that you have to have it. That is on the list and we just haven’t gotten there yet.”

All business on the Board’s agenda was approved, with the exception of the superintendent’s contract, which was tabled.

The BOE voted to approve the 2016-17 budget as follows. The district’s user friendly budget can be found here.