Haddon Heights school budget would raise taxes

Posted: April 16, 2012

Haddon Heights education officials will ask voters to approve a spending plan Tuesday that would raise taxes to spare jobs in the schools and save numerous sports programs and student activities.

The Camden County district and five in Gloucester County are among only 73 statewide that declined New Jersey's recent, first-time offer to move their elections to November. More than 85 percent of the state's elected boards went for the change, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Locally, only Haddon Heights seeks to exceed the state's 2 percent cap on tax-levy increases.

School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said it was difficult to predict whether having fewer spring contests would affect voter turnout, which averages 15 percent for school elections.

"You don't have that statewide focus when there is a lot more media attention," Belluscio said.

The new law doesn't change the general timeline for school budgets, Belluscio noted. Virtually all districts in the state had to hold at least one public hearing, this year by March 29, and their boards had to adopt a 2012-13 "base" budget by March 30.

Haddon Heights officials have held three public hearings and put out informational materials to try to persuade voters to support the proposal to exceed the cap and avoid what Superintendent Michael Adams called "devastating" cuts.

For the second year in a row, the district faces a budget deficit. This year's - about $850,000 - is largely due to having fewer tuition-paying students from Barrington and Lawnside, Adams said. Last year's budget resulted in staff reductions, and the proposed budget would result in about 11 more job cuts, he said.

In addition to approval of its base budget - which is essentially the spending plan minus money that would come from exceeding the levy cap - Haddon Heights has a second question.

It will ask voters for permission to raise the levy above the 2 percent cap by about $208,000. That's what officials say is needed to save activities such as freshman and junior high sports, elementary instrumental band and choir, winter cheerleading, and some academic clubs.

If the budget is defeated, cuts in staff, programs, or both also may be needed, according to the superintendent.

"It would greatly affect our academic and athletic programs," Adams said.

For the owners of a home assessed at about $288,000, the borough average, the proposed base budget would raise taxes $115.85 a year. Saving the clubs and sports would add another $72.85.

To exceed the tax cap, Haddon Heights would have had to put that additional spending before voters even if its election had been moved to the fall.

But this way, Adams said, students will have a full year of sports and clubs if the spending is approved. Approval in November would mean activities probably would not start until the second half of the year.

The five Gloucester County districts with elections on Tuesday are taking a risk.

Districts that moved their elections to November need not submit their budgets to voters at all unless they exceed the 2 percent cap. (In such cases, residents have to vote on the additional money, according to Belluscio.)

Residents of the Paulsboro, Delsea Regional and Monroe, Greenwich, and Franklin Township districts could shoot down spending plans that would not have been subject to approval in the fall.

In New Jersey, where many feel overburdened by property taxes, voters have been known to reject even budgets with reduced levies.

Another disadvantage of being among the few districts to retain April elections is higher costs, because the expense of running the elections is split among fewer districts.

In Gloucester County, for example, each district will spend close to $20,000, according Scott Campbell, business administrator for the Greenwich schools. Last year, they spent closer to a few thousand dollars, he said.

Still, some boards felt sticking with tradition was the way to go, at least for a year, to see how things went in the locales that opted for the change.

The Delsea Regional board and others feared shifting to November - when national and local political races would also be held - might jeopardize the nonpartisan nature of board elections. It was "a huge concern," district business administrator Joseph Collins said.

Also worrisome was taking away the public's ability to have a say.

"The board felt that the voters have a right to vote on their taxation," Paulsboro Superintendent Frank Scambia said. "This would be taken away if Paulsboro moved its election to November."

Proposed annual tax increases in the Gloucester districts where voting will take place Tuesday, based on average property assessments, are:

Paulsboro: $68.79.

Monroe Township: $54.80.

Greenwich Township: $142.31.

Franklin Township: $42.63.

Delsea Regional: $67.67 in Elk Township and $31.33 in Franklin Township.


Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841, rgiordano@phillynews.com, or @ritagiordano on Twitter.

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