Mantua Township BOE adopts 2021 budget with small tax increase

Residents with an average assessed home will see $10 hike

A small local school tax increase is on the horizon for residents after the Mantua Township Board of Education adopted its 2020-’21 budget during a remote meeting last Monday..

The budget totals $20,948,238, an increase of about $800,000 from the 2019-’20 budget.

There will be a $766,620 increase in the local tax levy from last year. Residents with an average assessed home of $205,881 will see a $10 increase in their local school taxes. The last two years, the average assessed home in Mantua Township saw a decrease.

Superintendent Robert Fisicaro described the budget process as a balancing act between maintaining a high level of education and programming and offering a fiscally responsible budget to keep the tax burden reasonable for residents. Doing so has become more of a challenge for the school district,  thanks to annual decreases in state aid. Mantua is expected to receive $5,950,071 in state aid this year, a decrease of about $100,000 from last year.

“I think this is a strong budget,” Fisicaro said during a budget presentation to the board. “It commits to continuing the strong services and programs we have.”

This year’s budget includes the retention of all district programming and non-tenured staff members. The only staff reduction this year is the elimination of one position at Centre City School, currently held by a staff member who is retiring at the end of the school year. The district also cut administration budget lines by 5 percent to balance the budget.

The district is planning to take care of some of the projects originally proposed in its defeated bond referendum from January. About $500,000 of this year’s tax levy increase has been earmarked to pay for the replacement of the gym floor at J. Mason Tomlin Elementary School. District officials said the floor needs to be replaced after high mercury levels were  found in the current floor. Fisicaro said budgeting for the floor will allow the work to be done this summer.

The district is also looking to utilize $60,000 of grant money from the state to pay for security vestibules at all three schools.

“We may need to add some funding to that, but the state is giving us a nice amount to get started,” Fisicaro noted. “We want to make sure we capitalize on that.”

Even though the board unanimously adopted the budget last Monday, Fisicaro warned many things could change, thanks to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. The biggest concern is the possibility of losing more state aid this summer as the state goes through its budget process.

“We’re starting to get some strong warnings from the state that there may be further reductions of state aid,” Fisicaro informed the board.

There is also the uncertainty of what schools will look like when they reopen in the fall. Fisicaro said the pandemic could impact transportation costs for next year.

Another impact involves the ongoing negotiations between the district and the Mantua Township Education Association. The MTEA’s current contract is set to expire on June 30. The superintendent said negotiations slowed for a period of time due to the pandemic, but negotiating teams for the board and MTEA were scheduled to meet in a remote negotiating session on May 7.

During a report later in the meeting, Fisicaro also talked about how the pandemic could affect summer programming. Last week’s meeting was held about seven hours after Gov. Phil Murphy announced the closure of schools for the remainder of the 2019-’20 school year. Following the governor’s decision, Fisicaro looked ahead to programs such as summer school , the district’s annual summer camp and summer enrichment programming. He said it’s unlikely any of the programming will start on time and will likely be pushed later into the summer. The district plans to communicate with parents once a decision is made.

“If we can’t have school on June 11, we can’t have child care on June 14,” Fisicaro said.

The board also plans to discuss a way to honor the sixth grade class at Tomlin School. With the school unable to host its annual promotion ceremony due to the state’s social distancing regulations, multiple board members said they would look to partner with community members or local organizations and come up with another way to recognize the sixth graders.

The next Mantua Township Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Monday, June 8. Fisicaro said while it’s possible the next meeting could be in-person, with board members and the public spaced out to adhere to social distancing requirements, he anticipates it will be another remote meeting.