Watchung Hills School Board Tackles Budget Concerns Amidst Rising Costs and Declining Enrollment

The Watchung Hills School Board recently convened to address a range of issues, with the upcoming fiscal year’s budget taking center stage. The board tackled the challenges stemming from rising healthcare costs, the loss of federal funds, and the need for maintaining a healthy bottom line amid declining enrollment. Alongside budget deliberations, Superintendent Elizabeth C. Jewett underscored the importance of security in upcoming budget talks and the implications of the area’s demographic shifts on the student population. The meeting also included discussions on the Student Safety and Data System report, ethics training for new board members, and recognition of a staff member’s achievement.

Business Administrator Tim Stys provided an overview of the numerous factors influencing the budget for the upcoming year. He highlighted the impact of escalating healthcare costs and the absence of Esser federal funds, previously provided through Covid grants. The budget also had to account for recurring costs, such as special education tuition, transportation, and the challenge of contract negotiations in the face of rising inflation. Stys discussed the implications of declining enrollment on the budget, suggesting the possibility of increased send-receive tuition revenue, and briefed the board on the ongoing study examining the potential for regionalization.

The revenue components of the budget were also scrutinized, with Stys explaining the constraints of the 2% cap on tax levy increases and the eligibility for cap waivers. He detailed the sources of state aid, the structuring of send-receive tuition contracts, and the strategic use of surplus and reserves. On the appropriations side, anticipated items included teacher contracts, health benefits, instructional needs, and capital improvement projects, such as security upgrades, HVAC unit installations, athletic field press boxes, and new carpeting. The conversation addressed the burden of energy costs and how the installation of solar panels could offset some of these expenses.

Board member Bob Morrison inquired about the cost of the Empower program and the benefits of the school’s insurance group, while also commending the administration for the prudent use of Esser funds. Morrison expressed concern over the trend of declining enrollment. Daniel Gallic raised the issue of insurance cost reduction through improved usage. The board as a whole expressed appreciation for Stys’ detailed presentation, acknowledging the difficult balancing act of meeting the needs of various stakeholders within the constraints of the budget.

Superintendent Elizabeth C. Jewett emphasized the importance of considering security in the context of the budget discussions. The board also considered the findings of an ongoing master plan study, which is expected to shed light on demographic trends over the coming years, particularly concerning the increase in affordable housing projected for 2025 and its potential impact on student populations.

The meeting progressed with reports from several committees. The Education Committee addressed minor edits to the program of studies, updates to course offerings and prerequisites, and adjustments to the summer reading schedule. The Personnel Committee discussed the impact of potential salary increases on the budget and the process for proposing new school clubs. The Operations Committee focused on fire alarm activities, late buses, health benefits, and construction updates. The Regionalization Committee provided an update on technical adjustments to their application and the anticipated formal approval for their study.

The board also recognized Moren Kelly, who was awarded the 2024 New Jersey Association of Educational Support Professionals (ESP) of the Year.

Note: This meeting summary was generated by AI, which can occasionally misspell names, misattribute actions, and state inaccuracies. This summary is intended to be a starting point and you should review the meeting record linked above before acting on anything you read. If we got something wrong, let us know. We’re working every day to improve our process in pursuit of universal local government transparency.

Elizabeth C. Jewett
School Board Officials:
Michael Birnberg, Daniel Gallic, Lisa DiMaggio, William Mayerchak, Robert Morrison, Heather Trumpore, Catherine Leigh, Susan Ober, Carol Prasa, Janine Potter

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