Delaware Valley Regional High School, a designated "Future Ready" school, is facing significant state funding reductions. (Rick Epstein)
Delaware Valley Regional High School, a designated "Future Ready" school, is facing significant state funding reductions.

Rick Epstein

State budget cuts take toll on Del Val

February 25, 2020

Del Val is currently experiencing a 5-year decrease in state funding, and the effects are going to be felt by everyone in the community in the coming months. The Delphi recently spoke with Superintendent Daria Wasserbach and Business Administrator Teresa Barna concerning this year’s round of state educational budget cuts to Del Val to determine how these cuts are going to impact the Del Val community going forward.

Today, New Jersey State Governor, Phil Murphy, gave his annual budget address, and Del Val will be notified of its Aid Notices within 48 hours of the speech’s conclusion. While it is well known by the community that budget cuts are impending, many may not know how a school budget is determined.

This year’s budget is currently being developed around the expectation of a staggering state funding reduction in the amount of $545,261. The state budget reduction began last school year and will conclude with the 2024-25 school year. “The cumulative cash loss is over 7 million dollars over the five-year period,” Barna said. This number may seem drastically different from the state’s reported 2.7 million dollar cut to Del Val, but as Superintendent Wasserbach explains, the cuts are cumulative from year-to-year. “The difference from the starting point to the ending point is 2.7 million dollars, so the last number is going to be 2.7 million dollars less than the first number. But, each year the reductions come and they’re cumulative. When you add up the total loss in cash flow, we are losing over 7 million dollars cumulatively,” Wasserbach said.

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“The difference from the starting point to the ending point is 2.7 million dollars, so the last number is going to be 2.7 million dollars less than the first number. But, each year the reductions come and they’re cumulative. When you add up the total loss in cash flow, we are losing over 7 million dollars cumulatively””

— Superintendent Wasserbach

The annual budget cycle runs from July 1st to June 30th, but each year’s budget preparations begin in October for the following school year’s budget cycle. Despite not having its Aid Notice from the state for next year, Del Val has already been working on next year’s plan for 5 months. Del Val’s budget is constructed by the department supervisors, who submit applications to the Superintendent and Business Administrator (Wasserbach and Barna) for consideration and approval.

Once the budget is developed, the school checks that the numbers are balanced and then submits it to the BOE (Board of Education) for 1st adoption in March. The County Office, acting as a representative of the State Department of Education, will then perform a review before the budget is published in the newspaper and then submitted for final adoption during a public hearing at the April BOE meeting.

Clearly there is a complicated process that determines an annual school budget, and Del Val has many difficult decisions to make in the upcoming months.

How are budget cuts made?

Budget cut decisions are a collaborative effort between supervisors, vice principals, directors, and the district administration (the Superintendent and Business Administrator). “As an organization, we really do this process collaboratively because we feel that everyone needs to understand why the decisions are made,” Wasserbach said. The BOE must then approve all recommendations before any actions can be taken within the school. Despite so many people being involved in the process, these decisions are not easy ones to make.

“The difficulty [of making budget cuts], when you start getting into these really big numbers, it’s not like we can just say ‘everyone needs to cut back on their paper-usage,’” Wasserbach said. As Del Val’s loss in state aid next school year is so significant, negligible monetary cuts will not offset the loss in funds.

Teresa Barna
This reduction schedule depicts the amount of funding Del Val will lose each year during the “faze out.”

When it comes to one of the most difficult cuts to make within a school, reductions in staffing, the administration has little flexibility. “So much of what we do is dictated by law…These people are not only the teachers up in front of the classrooms, but they are also husbands and wives and parents and they have bills and this is their profession,” Wasserbach said. There is a strict set of rules that the school has to follow when considering staff cuts.

Teachers without tenure, a title that a teacher achieves by completing 4 successful years of teaching in a school with satisfactory evaluations and observations, will be considered for Reduction in Force (RIF) before teachers who have attained tenure. Non-tenured teachers’ evaluations and performance may be taken into account when considering staff-cuts. However, if an entire department is tenured and a teaching position from that department needs to be cut, RIFs are determined by seniority. By law, the process is informally described as “the last one in is the first one out.”  This is not a performance-based decision.

Thus far, Del Val has not had to make many staff reduction decisions.  Instead, these cuts have mostly been handled through attrition: losing staff to retirement or staff that leave on their own. Attrition has maintained Del Val’s balance of staff and budget in the least harsh way possible. If teachers don’t continue to retire or leave for other opportunities, the administration will have to make some very difficult decisions.

Various programs at Del Val will also feel the effects of budget cuts. “We also have to look at which programs are necessary and which ones are ‘nice to have,’ and what we can do to make them more cost effective,” Ms. Wasserbach stated. Programs that are more for enjoyment will have to be altered to be more cost effective, or they may not receive the funding that they have in previous years. Ms. Barna explained that all programs will be considered when cuts have to be made, including clubs, sports and any other offering that Del Val makes available to its students.

Why is Del Val losing state aid?

It is no secret that Del Val is in the midst of a harsh wave of budget cuts, and many community members are asking why Del Val is losing its state funding. Ms. Barna explains that the breakdown between the two contributors to the budget is 80% taxpayer dollars and 20% state funding. The aforementioned state funding, however, is being dramatically reduced over the next 4 years.

DVTV

“The very, very simple answer to that question is declining enrollment. That really is the driving force behind [the funding reduction].” Declining enrollment isn’t solely to blame for the decreased state funding. State law dictates that a specific formula must be used to determine the state’s contribution to each public school in the state.  Enrollment trends serve as one part of the equation, and a district’s “ability to pay” is the other factor.

“There is another component [of the funding formula] that is taken into consideration beyond enrollment. It’s the ‘community’s ability to pay.’ That part of it is kind of an anomaly to us. It’s something that the state determines.  We can’t really grasp how that is determined except that it’s a combination of the income levels of the residents in the towns and the property values of the residents,” Ms. Barna said.

Based on Delaware Valley’s reputable, wealthy standing in comparison to other districts’, the state determines that the district’s taxpayers have the ability to pay to support the school, so the state does not need to bare as much of the burden. According to Ms. Barna, statistically, 80%, or $14 million, of the school’s annual funding is from taxpayers and 20% is from the state. Other districts, due to this forumla, have the reverse percentages. As a result, funding is limited as it is, and reducing this already small 20% of the school’s funding is going to have dramatic impacts on the offerings that Del Val will be able to provide for its students. “Hunterdon County was one of the hardest hit in the area,” Wasserbach commented.

Cost cutting measures already taken

To combat the budget cuts, Del Val has been proactively cutting down on costs in recent years. “We need to do whatever we can to keep our operating costs down, so that the kids can have as much money as they possibly can,” Wasserbach said. The school’s plan to cut back on operating costs includes the recent installment of the 1 Megawatt Solar Array, which has saved the school $50,000 per year on electricity. Similarly, the Window and Roof Replacement Projects, as well as the Insulation Project, have lowered utility costs while preventing heat loss within the building.

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We need to do whatever we can to keep our operating costs down, so that the kids can have as much money as they possibly can.”

— Superintendent Wasserbach

In addition to these projects, Del Val continues to save money through shared services. Since Wasserbach and Barna also act as Superintendent and Business Administrator for Frenchtown School, and both Del Val and Frenchtown share a technology director, facilities director, and transportation department, Del Val doesn’t have to pay full salaries and costs, as those expenses are split between the two schools. This agreement saves both schools a significant amount of money.

This shared expense allows for money that Del Val would otherwise be spending to fully fund these services to be allocated elsewhere. In return, Del Val provides school lunches for Frenchtown and Milford schools, which helps the sending districts to save money as well. The transportation department also works with other schools outside of the Del Val region and Hunterdon County, which helps to offset costs.

In terms of extra-curricular savings, some club advisors are making the decision to hold meetings during unit lunch, which is considered part of the work day. Because of this decision, teachers are opting not to take a stipend in order to keep their clubs going during the school day. In other words, staff members are giving up a portion of their time in order to provide club opportunities to the students while saving the school money to be used elsewhere. Having club meetings during lunch also enables more students to participate in activities that they otherwise would not have been able to due to other after-school commitments such as sports and jobs.

“Our ultimate goal is to keep the dollars in the classroom, meaning any sort of programming whether that is instructional or extracurricular or athletic, but the money needs to go to the kids,” Wasserbach said.

Cost cutting measures under consideration

With more funding reductions on the way, Del Val is already proposing measures for the upcoming school year to help cut costs. Some of the possible reductions are yet to be determined, as the master class schedule is still being completed by the counseling department. Until the final schedule is in place, decisions concerning staffing, programs, and classes cannot be finalized.

However, there are some measures that are already being drafted for proposal as part of the budget cuts for the 2020-21 school year. Starting next school year, Del Val will not be paying for the students’ AP exams as it has done in the past. “We are really the only school in the district that has covered that cost,” Wasserbach said. This decision will save the school $30,000 annually if approved by the BOE.

Another reduction for next school year will be the elimination of the 4 pm “Late Bus” routes that run on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The late buses help students to get home from club meetings and other activities. As these bus routes are likely to be eliminated next year, students will have to consider carpooling with seniors or have to arrange an alternative ride home after their meetings have concluded.

What can you do to help Del Val?

The loss of state funding will clearly affect Del Val, but the school is being proactive in its efforts to maintain Del Val’s incredible reputation as a “Future Ready” school. This will not be an easy accomplishment without the support of schools in similar situations and the community. “[The formula] is a part of the law, so unless the law changes, the formula will not change. But we have taken measures to try to battle this legislatively,” Wasserbach said. 

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[S.O.S.] is getting the word out not only to their local communities so that they can participate in being an advocate for their schools, but also to do things such as writing letters to their local representatives, their state representatives and the governor,”

— Ms. Barna

Ms. Barna discovered, and enlisted the support of, the group Support Our Students (S.O.S.). “The Support Our Students group was created out of the districts across the state that are losing state aid, and essentially what they are is an advocacy group where they’re doing multiple things to try and be heard about how [the budget cuts] are affecting our students. They are getting the word out not only to their local communities so that they can participate in being an advocate for their schools, but also to do things such as writing letters to their local representatives, their state representatives and the governor,” Barna said.

The group has been told they’ll be meeting with the Commissioner of Education, Dr. Lemont Repollet, in the near future to discuss the effects that the cuts will have on these districts. The group is especially hoping to extend the “faze out,” the 5-year time period during which these funding reductions are occurring, to a 10-year period in order to lessen the severity of the impact that the cuts are having on the schools and their students.

Because Del Val received unadjusted funding for a decade, the school is now losing what would have been a slow decrease in funding over a 10-year period as a rapid decrease in funding over the short, 5-year period. Should the decreased funding be spread out over 10 years, the effected schools, including Del Val, would be able to slowly cut their budgets with a smaller impact on the school and its community.

If you are interested in supporting this school and voicing your opinions on these budget cuts, you can join Del Val and S.O.S. by contacting your local and state representatives.  Their contact information is listed below.  Together, we can be the difference for Del Val’s future.

 

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