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Somerset Hills Schools Introduce Budget With 1.7% Increase

School board introduces 2013-14 budget with 2 percent increase in current expenses and $100K increase in capital funds that could be put toward athletic field.

The Somerset Hills Board of Education laid out basic figures for a proposed 2013-14 school budget for the regional school district that would raise taxpayers' contribution to expenditures by about 1.6 percent if approved by board members at a public hearing scheduled for March 27.

The overall increase for the total suggested $39,935,984 budget for the next school year, as introduced at Wednesday's school board meeting, is 1.7 percent, according to board figures.

That includes a 2 percent increase in next year's current fund budget, which does not exceed a state cap on local school budget increases. The budget as proposed keeps all programs intact and includes possibly one more teacher at the high school, said the school's business administrator, Nancy Hunter. But she noted the number of kindergarten classes at the Bedwell Elementary School next fall is due to be cut by one because of declining kindergarten enrollment.

Capital improvement budget includes some funds for athletic field

The proposal for next year also includes a 16.7 percent increase in capital funds, from $600,000 to $700,000, with another $100,000 that Hunter said may go as the first year's payment toward construction of a field behind the Bernardsville Middle School.

The board also discussed plans to expand a lower field complex beyond the turf field at Bernards High School  discussed by the board on Feb. 5 and at Wednesday night's meeting. However, Hunter added on Thursday that the $50,000 or so that project already is in this year's capital budget.

The board committed on Feb. 5 to investigating that field expansion, which would provide a grass multi-purpose field by existing baseball and softball fields on the high school property, but lacks necessary state environmental and soil conservation permits to proceed at this point, Board President Donna Coons said on Wednesday.

Using fill that could be donated by a new Chase Bank branch under construction on Route 202, Board Member Louis Palma earlier on Wednesday morning said that a new grass field below the turf field could cost between $100,000 to $150,000.

But Hunter on Thursday said that by making further modifications later on Wednesday — such as reducing the amount of area from which trees would be cleared — the anticipated cost had been cut to about $50,000.

But Hunter said that the district's capital fund also was increased to help rebuild the account, which she said was drained when the governor cut unallocated state aid to Somerset Hills Schools to zero in 2010.

No state aid figure available yet

In fact, the budget introduced at the meeting has one important missing figure — how much state aid the governor will grant the district for next year, Hunter said.

Hunter said the $979,498 figure plugged into the preliminary budget is a "complete guesstimeate," although it is slightly lower than the actual state aid figure of about $1.16-million listed for 2012-13.

She said Christie is expected to give his "state of the state" address next week, and she hopes school officials will have a better handle by the end of next week on how much state aid will be available for next year. The governor already has spoken about the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the state.

If the school district receives less than the estimate in the introduced budget, school officials will need to revisit the expenses side of the budget with an eye toward making cuts, Hunter said.

After receiving state aid figures, which include additional funds for such expenses as special education, Hunter said she then can calculate the impact on the tax rates of the three communities that send children to Somerset Hills schools. That includes Bernardsville, where all of the schools are located, and Far Hills and Peapack-Gladstone. Bedminster sends its high school students to Bernards High on a tuition paying basis.

The overall percentage of the increase in current expenses and capital funds is 2.3 percent.

But the school board's figures show that a decrease of about $112,000 — or 3.3 percent — in debt payments, brings down the total expense fund increase down to 1.7 percent, according to board figures.

Hunter said that the district also saved money because school employees must start contributing more toward health insurance costs next year.

Taxpayers no longer vote on school budgets

Another change in state law allows statewide boards of education to approve school budgets that stay within a 2 percent cap on annual increases, rather than having to ask for voter approval each April.

But Hunter said that school officials still will continue the tradition of presenting the proposed school budget to the schools' Home School Associations, and to borough officials.

She said the budget document will be online and advertised prior to the scheduled public hearing and final vote set for March 27.

Although school officials and members of the public discussed the athletic field at length on Wednesday night, no further changes were made following the discussion. With the project's engineer not present, Coons said the board could not answer technical questions on the proposed project.

Residents from Old Colony Road, and also representatives from the Great Swamp Watershed Association, including Executive Director Sally Rubin, a Bedminster resident, also questioned the impact that cutting trees and installing a field would have on the watershed, drainage into Penns Brook and the impact on further drainage heading down to Old Colony Road properties.

Palma said during the meeting that the amount of area from which trees would be cleared had been reduced from about 1.9 acres to just over half an acres in updated plans.

The discussion also touched upon a proposal that would require the school district to contribute to construction of another field behind the Bernardsville Middle School, the so-called Chestnut Field, that would be located primarily on borough-owned property.

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