Mt. Laurel Schools Board of Education adopts tentative budget for 2018–2019 school year

The budget includes funds for security upgrades, curriculum upgrades, capital improvements and more.

The Mt. Laurel Schools Board of Education has passed its tentative budget for the 2018–2019 school year.

Total appropriations in this year’s budget reached $75.8 million, which is an increase from last year’s total of $75.1 million.

Based on information presented at this week’s BOE meeting when officials detailed the budget for members of the public, Mt. Laurel homeowners with an average home assessed of $237,600 will see a local K-8 school tax increase of $61.77, or 2.4 percent.

Officials at this week’s meeting spent a portion of the budget presentation focusing on security upgrades included in the 2018–2019 budget in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Parkland, Fla., in February that left 17 people dead and others injured.

Specifically, officials said money in this budget will allow the district to install vestibules at all eight schools, hopefully before the start of next school year.

Vestibules are small chambers, such as a lobby, that provide an added layer of security by restricting visitors to a small area at a school’s main entrance behind a second set of doors before visitors are allowed to enter the main halls of a school.

“Our goal is to have this done over the summer and be ready for September,” district business administrator Robert Wachter Jr. said. “We’re very, very excited about this, and hopefully we get the support of everyone.”

The district also plans to upgrade classroom door locks and augment the several hundred security cameras the district already has installed with additional cameras to cover even more areas.

The district also has plans to install strobe lights in the all purpose rooms of schools so children and teachers who might not be able to hear important emergency messages during noisy lunch periods will have an added visual cue as well.

Additional strobe lights will also be installed at the entrances to the district’s schools so parents, staff or general visitors will know to stay away and not approach the building during an emergency or drill.

Also related to school security in the budget are funds for the new position of a district student assistance coordinator to help focus on “at-risk students” who might be experiencing mental health issues, anxiety, depression or problems at home that would make those students more prone to violence.

According to Superintendent George Rafferty, the new position would work with school counselors focused mostly at Harrington Middle School, but would also be available for educational outreach at Hartford School as well.

“We’re taking a balanced view to our approach to the needs of our security, and part of reducing school violence is also making sure we have the necessary resources and supports for both mental health and student interventions for students who are at risk,” Rafferty said.

Also included in the tentative budget are funds for curriculum writing for kindergarten, health and physical education, media and sixth-grade math.

Other curriculum related items are kindergarten materials and resources, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math materials and supplies, and updated sixth-grade math resources.

Technological upgrades include ActivPanels and iPads for media centers, continued investment in technological infrastructure and replacements for the district’s Google Chromebooks.

This year, the district implemented its one-to-one Chromebook initiative where all students in grades one to eight have a Chromebook for use throughout the school day.

“We’re making sure that we’re continuing to utilize all of our resources to invest in the educational programs that we have here in Mt. Laurel, but just staying the same and staying flat in what we’re doing isn’t going to move our school district forward,” Rafferty said. “We have to invest in things that are going to help reap the benefits going forward.”

Other capital improvements include an upgrade to Fleetwood Elementary School’s playground, combination lock replacements for the Harrington gym lockers, an update to the HVAC controller software, replacement for the Hartford rooftop HVAC unit, carpet to tile replacement at Hartford and Springville Elementary School, tile replacement at Hillside Elementary School, carpet replacement at the Parkway Elementary School library, curtain replacement at the Hartford stage and painting at the Parkway Library and at Hartford, Springville and Larchmont Elementary School.

In regard to transportation upgrades, the district will replace two, 54-passenger buses and three, 24-passenger buses, as well as installing live GPS/camera system units in 10 buses.

Wachter also noted the district received about a $324,000 increase in state aid this year, bringing the district’s total state aid to about $4.8 million.

However, Wachter noted that figure was still below the $5.8 million the district received in the 2009–2010 school year before former Gov. Christie cut aid for districts across the state.

“Nine years later, we’re still a million dollars short of where we were nine years ago, and yet we’re still moving forward,” Wachter said.

Officials invited members of the public to learn more details of the budget at the board’s final budget adoption hearing on April 24 at Hartford at 7 p.m.