The Vernon Township school board passed the district’s 2021-22 budget with a reduction in the tax levy increase.
The original tax levy increase of 3.03 percent was lowered to 1.9 percent, below the state’s 2 percent tax levy limit, after a discussion over how much money the district will put aside for employee health insurance.
The new proposed levy is about $43.8 million on an approximately $67 million budget. The levy was about $44.3 million.
The board approved the budget in a contentious 6-3 vote.
School board member Joe Sweeney said he didn’t believe the district should go that low but voted yes in the spirit of compromise.
School board president Justin Annunziata and board members Charles Cimaglia, Raymond Zimmerman, Martin O’Donnell, and Jen Pellet also voted yes.
Kelly Mitchell, the board vice president, voted against the budget. She favored dropping the levy even further, to a 1.35 percent increase. School board member Adina Leuthner also voted no because she thought the 1.9 levy increase was too low and set the district up for shortfalls. School board member Theresa Scura Coughlin also voted against the budget.
The original proposed budget set aside about $9.8 million for employee health insurance, a 20 percent increase over 2020-21.
However, the district recently switched to the state health plan, which submits rate changes in January. The amount budgeted in 2020-21 didn’t’ reflect how much money the district saved by switching.
The teachers’ union president said the change saved the district $600,000 per year.
O’Donnell said the savings was not reflected in the budget projections; under the original proposed budget, the district was preparing for a 17 percent increase.
The district is in the third year of a six-year, $10 million cut in state aid. Assistant Superintendent Charles McKay said budget cuts now might force the school board to increase class sizes and eliminate programs down the road.
Superintendent Karen D’Avino agreed. “The board can do whatever it wants to do,” she said. “It’s not up to me. I don’t get to vote. I get to speak, but I don’t get to vote. I just worry that when I’m here in a couple of years, I’ll be saying, ‘Sorry, parents, we don’t have money because of decisions we made and didn’t’ look at long-term planning.’ I know it’s difficult. We’ve not been in this situation before.”
The approved budget allots $9,017,677 to employee health insurance, a 7.5 percent increase over last year.
The school board first voted on decreasing the health insurance line to about $9.3 million, but the motion failed, 5-4. Jennifer Pellett, Sweeney, Zimmerman, and Leuthner voted for it, while Annunziata, Cimaglia, Coughlin, Mitchell and O’Donnell voted against it.
Mitchell wanted to vote on a 1.35 percent tax levy, which would have knocked the insurance line down to about $8.8 million, a 5 percent increase, but O’Donnell told her it wouldn’t pass.
“The only way we’re going to get this budget passed is if there’s a compromise,” he said.
“It’s not up to me. I don’t get to vote. I just worry that when I’m here in a couple of years, I’ll be saying, ‘Sorry, parents, we don’t have money because of decisions we made and didn’t’ look at long-term planning.’” Superintendent Karen D’Avino