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Lawrence school officials talk about challenges crafting the budget

Interview by Bill Sanservino

Apr 1, 2024 

It’s no secret that increased costs have impacted almost every sector of the economy over the past few years. Municipal governments and school districts are no exception, and in some respects, it’s even more difficult for them.

Not only are there a number of regulatory requirements imposed by the federal and state governments, they are also tasked with the responsibility to make sure there is as little impact as possible on a community’s taxpayers.

The Lawrence Gazette recently sat down with Superintendent Robyn Klim, Business Administrator Thomas Eldridge and Sean Fry, the director of personnel and administrative services to talk about issues confronting the Lawrence Public School District.

Topics addressed in this month’s issue include the 2024-’25 budget, the superintendent's goals, and a potential reconfiguration of grades currently attending the elementary schools and the Lawrence Intermediate School.

A lightly edited version of their talk appears in the Q&A below. Other topics discussed will appear in subsequent issues.

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Lawrence Gazette: Things are tough economically for everyone these days. For school districts, costs are up, just like everyone's costs are up. Can you tell me a little about the budget process and how it’s coming together.

Robyn Klim: So I’d actually prefer to default to our business administrator, Tom Eldridge, who is our budget manager. While we work as a team, certainly this is his working department’s focus.

Thomas Eldridge: Our budget is built, with guidance from our board goals, and I’m sure Robyn is going to cover those. Without our board goals, I think we would be—I don’t want to say the word “lost,” but I think we need the goals to guide us.

They set the vision of what’s important for us. So there are so many important things, but our goals are our priorities. And so we focus on them because we have no shortage of competition for resources.

There’s never any shortage for good ideas. There are the board’s goals and the superintendent’s. I’m sure Robyn will talk to those.

When we build the budget, we try to channel our limited resources to achieving those goals. The budget is built from the ground up by the budget managers, which for the most part are our principals. Our principals identify their needs not just at budget time, but throughout the year.

The budget is a time for us to focus on all our needs for the next year. It’s something that we think of all the time, not just that budget season. We’re focusing on ways to achieve those goals, which are usually multi-year goals. How we refine those goals is often impacted by what’s happening in the broader environment.

For the current year, we began our budget process by meeting with our principals, making sure that our goals were clear, and hearing what they were going to do to capture the synergy between them.

The HR department—Sean Fry (director of personnel and administrative services—was there listening to what their future needs would be, and to ensure that they met the board’s goals and the superintendent schools. He’s there when we’re talking about things that are non-personnel related, and we’re all there together listening.

The group of people that come together for the Central Office administration — and we’re all looking, and we’re not siloed or pigeonholed into one area — are looking to find a way to bring the resources to bear to meet those goals.

Back to the principals. The principals meet with their parents on a regular basis to bring in community involvement. We have any number of PTO meetings or community conversations where we invite people to tell us what means something to them. We have a number of predefined prompts in those conversations so that if people don’t bring something to the table, we’ll prompt them to say, “How are we doing about this or that?”.

Jen (Baldassari) is instrumental in making sure that that happens to get people talking so that we can explore what’s meaningful to them so that the budget managers— whether they’re the principals, supervisors, our curriculum people, HR or myself — are finding ways to reflect the values that people express in that budget.

So, 79% of our budget is salaries and benefits. The rest of the slices — the big pieces at any rate —are our transportation costs, our services costs, our energy costs, and perhaps our out of district tuition costs. Those types of things are the major components of our budget after the 79% that are salaries and benefits.

Those things within that 79% of salaries and benefits and those services that make up the remainder of the pie — even though those are the things we buy — need to be channeled somewhere, and they’re channeled to our vision of what we want to achieve based on what we heard our constituents —meaning the parents —say they want. That typically falls along the lines of things that you want for your child.

We put all of that information into the budget. We assign numerical values to those things. We try to make sure that those taxpayer resources —in the way of dollars — are channeled to those goals. We always find ourselves with scarcity. Always. There are never enough dollars to meet all the good ideas and the goals.

Oftentimes we’re selecting amongst multiple good ideas, but not every good idea has the maximum efficacy for reaching that goal. So, we find ourselves and I started this conversation — at least my response to your question — with saying, “Without our goals, we’d be lost.”

It’s when we evaluate the competing good ideas that we reach back to our goals because we all, for the most part, see the value in all these good ideas. And they are usually good ideas, but we only have limited resources. So this budget that we’ve built so far has a tax impact of about, we’ll rounded out, to $55 for the average assessed homeowner. And with that, we’re funneling those funds towards making sure that what’s meaningful to you as a parent is sustained in the district.

LG: That’s $55 annually?

TE: Yes. It’s small. And the reason why it’s small is because when we talk about the budget, we typically talk about our operational budget. That is, what are our household expenses for the next year. What helps us in the current year is that our debt is going down. So the reduction in our debt is offsetting what we need, because it’s a combined tax rate between the two.

Overall, our total amount of taxes collected all told — our debt budget plus our operational budget —is at 2.6% (increase). That is the budget that we developed. That is the budget that the board adopted last week. What we’ll do with that now is submit it to the Mercer County Department of Education, which is a satellite of the state, and they will review it not for performance but for propriety.

They will evaluate it and try to make sure that we also didn’t forget anything. They’re also collaborators with us in trying to help make sure that we have a quality product, and they will give us their approval, or they’ll send it back to us for usually only minor modifications, if there are. I don’t expect any.

Then we’ll advertise that budget (in the newspaper), and then we’ll hold a public hearing on May 7. The hearing will look similar to what we already did at our March meeting. If it’s passed — which I suspect it will be — by our board again, that will be the final hurdle. At that point, we certify the tax rate, and we implement our budget. That was a long answer, but I hope it was sequential and step you through it.

LG: As you know, state law mandates a 2% cap on tax increases in municipal and school districts. Is it a struggle to stay under that? Or is it a goal that you look towards to make sure you stay under it?

TE: It’s a struggle to stay under it. Most people think of education from the lens of what occurred back in the 80s. Education is not that industry anymore. It is a market-driven industry. So, it is about supply and demand. Our primary resource, and our most precious resource, is our kids. But the primary source we use to deliver services is our staff, which is another precious resource.

But staff is now a function of supply and demand, and it is very difficult to attract staff. And so those things changed, and it started to change in the 1990s. It has been the primary driver in terms of market and education for at least the last ten years, and we’re seeing it fulfill itself to become more and more of a market economy with respect to attracting talent. So, to stay under the 2% (cap) is a struggle. Not only are you battling inflation, but you’re battling supply and demand.

LG: Are you also battling the potential for reduced state aid?

TE: We’re lucky enough to have had increases in state aid in the last of five years. But even with the increase in state aid, we find it difficult to stay under 2%. But the state aid has helped.

LG: A number of school districts, Robbinsville for example, have struggled with the amount of state aid they’re getting and they’re pushing for increased help for every community to get more money from the state for their school districts.

TE: Well, let’s combine the two largest cost drivers and just look at those two and see if we can capture them in 2%. If 79% of our budget is salaries and benefits, let’s take salaries and say it’s now a market economy to attract people based on supply and demand. Let’s couple that with inflation and let’s understand that we still have demand, but we have a decreased supply for a number of reasons. There's also the fact of our inability to go outside of New Jersey to hire teachers due to residency laws.

Let’s go to the other side where we’re talking about health benefits. I don’t know of any place that stays under 2% for their benefits costs. So, if 79% of our budget is governed by salaries and benefits, and we have those two industries impacted nationwide, it’s hard to stay under 2%.

LG: Dr. Klim, Tom mentioned the district’s goals and priorities. Can you talk about that?

RK: Absolutely. We are in year two of our strategic plan. My goals are derived straight from that plan. My focus coming in as a new superintendent as of Sept. 1 was connections and curriculum pathways and really assisting our Office of Instruction with rolling out their curriculum changes. We’ve had a new curriculum to write over the course of the summer into this school year, which we’ve implemented.

The second piece is building community connections, and that’s really an extension of our student wellness and belonging. It was very important to me to establish community conversations and get out there and listen to our constituents, and to understand what’s happening, operationally speaking, in the township and after school activities and programs that are run. And what does our infrastructure look like? Who’s coming to our fields on the weekends to play?

The third huge thing was preschool expansion. We were awarded grant funding from the governor’s plan for universal preschool. We had a late award notice in the middle of January, and we opened two classrooms as a result under that extension, which we’re very proud of. One is at the high school, Cardinal Kids. That runs almost in conjunction with a (high school) early childhood growth and development course. (For more on the program and Klim’s biography, see her column on page 19).

Mr. Eldridge alluded to growing the pipeline of teachers. We are essentially utilizing the kids’ classroom as the student lab site. So, they get to go in and kind of learn about early childhood. They’re learning about curriculum. They’re learning about interaction and what’s appropriate developmentally, which is just awesome for the high school students. And the kids love having the older students in there. We’re sort of servicing the younger kids while also growing the pipeline of our educators, hoping that they leave us and come back and work in Lawrence.

The second classroom is going to open after spring break at Eldridge Park. And then our plan extends to Slackwood (Elementary School) the following school year for September, which means that we’ll have at least one preschool class in all our four elementary buildings, providing access and some choice to students and an opportunity to go to school in your home school. So, your neighborhood school that you grew up in. These kids will have the opportunity at three years old to go through our school system at no expense to the parents. So those are sort of the three pillars.

We’re also looking at a longer-range plan of potential reconfiguration, which would move our middle school to a (grades) 6th to 8th model. Currently we have 7th-8th, and then, of course, our 9th-12th at the high school. There’s been some concerns, not globally speaking, but in terms of inefficiencies, with having a 4th-6th building in this district.

You’re essentially running an upper elementary model alongside a 6th grade schedule, which is mired to a 6th-8th grade band of educational standards and testing standards. And social emotional needs look a little bit different as they get older.

So we’re looking to potentially grow in the area of resetting and having it be a pre-K-2nd, a 3rd-5th, a 6th-8th and the high school (9th-12th). We worked with our board and our leadership team to serve up the best, most educated thoughts around, what’s evidence-based and what’s appropriate for student learning socially and emotionally, academically. We’re starting to map out, at least financially, what it might look like to add 6th grade onto the middle school. And then we would push the grade levels forward to put preschool in their neighborhood schools. So, we’re really excited about that.

LG: What is your timeline?

RK: I’m going to be writing and working with this team on a five-year operational plan over the summer, hopefully to furnish it this fall so that the board and the community are very aware of the steps in the process. Our timeline, globally speaking, would be—we’re mapping out the architectural plans and obviously we need to get a price point to our constituents.

We might be looking at a bond referendum—a vote—as early as next April. We wouldn’t dare slide that into a presidential election. Just kind of boots on the ground from December to next April, and really kind of pushing and understanding what our initiatives are, what we’re growing, what our facilities are going to look like. We’re looking to potentially tuck some other projects in that would increase our capacity here.

When you bring 6th grade up, you need another cafeteria. You might need an extra field. Space is  opportunity for our students, and so we want to thoughtfully go through this process, partnering with our community, partnering with our administrators and our leadership team. It will be over the course of five years. I don’t envision us being moved into the reconfiguration until year five. Next year would be year one.

LG: What are you looking at in terms of any other capital costs or improvements, within the district in the next couple of years.

TE: Right now, what we’re doing is we’re looking to see instructionally how we need to reshape our buildings to meet Doctor Klim’s vision. Our architect is doing that right now. As we’re doing that, we’re also identifying other things. We may replace some roofs on some buildings. Things of that nature.

We have already done all our windows in the district. We’re already in a paving schedule. Many people think that we’re going to have to build for preschool. We may, but we may not. We have to see. We may be able to find community providers.

I think that there may be some capital maintenance projects there. There may be a couple of roofs in there, but other than that, we have already completed the replacement of all our major heating cores and our major HVAC. We have one boiler room, I believe, left to do, and that’s the Intermediate School. Really, our facilities are in great shape. We have minor capital projects to do.

LG: School districts still have to go out referendum to ask the voters if they want to issue bonds?

TE: Yes. Just to be clear, when Dr. Klim was saying next April, it’s not this coming April, but April 2025.

That is a tentative time that we would bring a question before the voters to say, “We would like to bond this amount of money for these types of things.” Whatever they’re being asked for, there would be a question, and then what we call an “interpretive statement,” and that statement would say, in practical terms, what we want to do. We haven’t determined fully what that statement would be, but we absolutely know from an educational perspective what we want it to be. Hence, the architect is helping us identify what it looks like in bricks and mortar.

This is an important distinction that I’m going to make next. It’s a huge distinction, and I’m going to speak plainly. This is a transparent administrative process at this point. Everything you heard is our administrative due diligence.

We are not at the point where we’re asking for feedback yet. I just want to make that clear. People will absolutely have the ability to tell us what they think. We’re just trying to shape our thoughts right now based on our educational mission. We still have to present it to you and say, “What do you think about these things, and what do you think is most important now?”.

There’s been, I guess, 12 miniature community conversations in the last 14 months. We’re constantly in the cycle of listening. But right now, what we’re saying transparently is that administratively, we’re letting you hear what we think.

So, you’re listening to what we think and we’re always taking in feedback to close the loop. Just so that we don’t have that mixed up with, “Why haven’t you asked me.” We’re letting you know what we’re thinking, we'll have miniature community conversations, and we will go on a purposeful focused conversation for feedback.

We’re fleshing out the parameters of our own thinking, but we want people to be informed about it. We’ve never done this before. We’ve never been so transparent where we’re letting people hear our thoughts and what we’re thinking this far in advance.

Normally what happens is that we announce that we’re going to go and do this. So yes, we have an architect contract for $40,000. That’s all we have. But he doesn’t have a contract to build. He has a contract to listen.

RK: We are still in the infancy stages of thinking. What’s cool is that because we’re so transparent, this leadership team, to be honest, has started to put out crumbs of information so that people aren’t hit all at once with this idea that comes to fruition. Our board’s committee meeting minutes have included discussions such as this, and so have my superintendent’s reports. We had a board work session where the minutes were posted to talk about this idea that we were moving forward with a reconfiguration plan.

When people read our minutes, they’re asking questions, we’re responding. We’re setting up meetings in the community in addition to the community conversations. My goal was to be as transparent as humanly possible.

We invite people in to ask questions while we’re developing our thinking. We’ve even pivoted on some thoughts because of better informed understandings of, “Well, have you thought this? Have you thought about that?”.

We’re building our operational plan. Just as recently as last night, I was sitting at the Intermediate School and somebody was talking about busing and the concern they have about how jammed up the one school gets for drop off. And if we do a 3rd-5th, it’s less likely that we’ll have walkers.

We’re probably going to have more cars dropping off. Have we thought about XYZ? When parents are helping us build our plan, whether they know it or not, formally, or informally, which is what we want.