Financial future of Tabernacle School District leaves board searching for answers

Sharp cuts in state aid are forcing the Tabernacle School District to figure out ways to save money without affecting students' learning and the schools' programming.

A 2018 funding reform is placing many school districts, such as Tabernacle, in financial limbo as they search for creative ways to cut costs while not negatively impacting students’ learning.

Brian Lepsis, board member and finance committee chair, informed the board at the Nov. 18 meeting the district is projected to receive $340,000 less in state aid for the 2020-2021 school year, then $1.092 million less in the 2021-2022 school year. In the 2023-2024 school year, the district is looking to lose $2.6 million in state aid.

I don’t want to mince words, so I will be clear: our ability to survive as an independent Tabernacle-only school district is in jeopardy,” Lepsis said. “The financial reality simply does not support our existence.

He added the district needs an immediate “massive reduction in expenditures” to keep up with the cuts in state aid. As of the April 29 budget adoption meeting, the district is spending $13,511,838 in the 2019-2020 school year.

The board approved to cut former Tabernacle Elementary School Principal Gerald Paterson and several special education teachers at the April 29 meeting to save money. Lepsis emphasized everything is on the table when considering how the district can lower its expenses without affecting students’ learning and current programs.

One of the options the district is exploring is to move more grades to Kenneth R. Olson Middle School, leave preschool, kindergarten and first-grade in the front wing of TES and shut down large swaths of the elementary school.

The proposed move, which has not been formally presented or adopted, is supported by the district’s 677 student enrollment. TES has 356 students and OMS has 317. Four students are in out-of-district placements.

As a point of reference, in the 2004-2005 school year, our enrollment was just under 1,000 students,” Lepsis said. “In the 2008-2009 school year, our enrollment was 891 students. Currently, we have 677 students here. That’s a 33 percent drop from the 2004-2005 school year.

Despite the two possible residential developments in the township at Seneca Reserve and the Hass Sand and Gravel Pit, the district is looking at an additional 109 students in the 2024-2025 school year. The total, however, will still support the sharp cuts the district is facing in its state aid.

As the district lost one-third of its students since 2004, Lepsis added they’ve seen only a one-tenth reduction in its workforce.

For example, in 2006 — the furthest back number that I could find — we had 154 full-time employees. In 2018, the most recent comprehensive financial report numbers, we had 138 full-time employees.

He emphasized cuts in staffing would need to occur each year to correspond with not only the student enrollment, but also the declining state aid.

A proposed way for the district to save money includes partnering with the surrounding school districts that send to Seneca High School — Southampton, Woodland and Shamong — to come to an agreement on either regionalization, sending-receiving, shared services “or otherwise.”

The district, Lepsis said, is taking the lead in initiating a conversation with its fellow Seneca sending districts to invite the boards of education to meet and discuss their individual and collective financial situations, and make strides to avoid a fiscal cliff.

Our message to the surrounding districts is simple: ‘We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately,’” he added.

Tabernacle resident and secretary at TES Donna O’Mally requested the board to include the community and staff in the discussions and decisions they make as much as possible. She circled back to the proposed plan to shift grades to OMS in asking the board to consider moving fifth-grade to the elementary school, or moving fourth-grade to the middle school.

Do it over time, don’t do something that’s going to happen in September,” she added. “Yes, I know ‘the money, the money’ — you don’t know what’s going to change on a yearly basis.

As the board is faced with these decisions regarding its financial future, no staff cuts were made at the Nov. 18 meeting. In addition, the board is still in the negotiating process for the contract for the Tabernacle Education Association, the teachers’ union.

None of these options are especially appealing, but we have not been afforded the luxury of making easy decisions. Every decision we will be forced to make over the next few years will be painful,” Lepsis said. “Nor have we been able to afford the luxury of time.”

The next board meeting is scheduled for Dec. 2 beginning at 6 p.m. at OMS.