Monroe Township Board of Education adopts robust 2020-2021 budget

Plan includes addition of staff, full-day kindergarten and more than 50 capital projects

There is no shortage of new projects and initiatives in the 2020-2021 Monroe Township Public Schools budget.

With the district scheduled to receive a large increase in state aid, Business Administrator Lisa Schulz said it plans to take advantage of that with additional staff, a slew of capital projects and the introduction of full-day kindergarten.

“This proposed budget does provide a lot of opportunity to the district that hasn’t been available in the past,” Schulz said.

The Monroe Township Board of Education unanimously adopted the budget at Thursday’s meeting. The total amount is $109,068,071, a 4.71-percent increase from last year. Thanks to the increase in state aid and use of the district’s fund balance, the district’s local tax levy will only increase 1 percent. Residents with an average assessed home of $203,743 will see their school taxes increase to $41.20.

The biggest addition to the district’s budget is its new full-day kindergarten program. The budget includes 43 new teachers and paraprofessionals for the program, as well as funds for facility upgrades and classroom materials.

In addition to the staff additions for kindergarten, the district is also adding mental health counselors for high school and middle school, a basic skills teacher at Holly Glen Elementary, a fourth grade teacher at Oak Knoll Elementary, a part-time physical education teacher at Whitehall Elementary, an autism teacher, a speech therapist teacher, a behavioral specialist and a co-teach kindergarten teacher.

A significant investment is also being made in capital projects. The district is spending a little less than $3.9 million next school year, with money earmarked for paving and blacktop replacement, security camera upgrades, roof replacements, the replacement of two chillers at Williamstown High School and more. The BOE approved a list of 54 capital projects alongside the budget.

“It’s the highest that it has been (in the last five years) to provide these maintenance services the district is in need for,” Schulz said.

The large increase in spending is being supported with $2.8 million in additional state aid  the district is scheduled to receive next school year. The district’s total state aid is expected to be about $42.4 million, or about 41.7 percent of its total revenue. Five years ago, the district received only $34.8 million in state aid.

While there was a lot of optimism regarding the increase in state aid and the budget, Schulz cautioned the board, saying the COVID-19 pandemic could cause changes even after the budget is approved.

“With the situation the whole world is in, everything is uncertain, including funding,” she noted.

Schulz’s budget presentation also touched on the district’s Energy Savings Improvement Plan (ESIP) to help save money on energy costs. The plan includes mechanical and lighting improvements district-wide as well as the district’s participation in a solar project with Monroe Township and the MUA.

Later in the meeting, Paul Napoli, an account executive for Johnson Controls, talked about some of the work the company would do with the district as part of the ESIP. The total cost of all ESIP projects is about $25.5 million. But Napoli stated in his presentation that the district can expect to save $31.8 million in energy and utility costs over the next 19 years, allowing the projects to pay for themselves over time.

“This project is about renewing infrastructure in all of your buildings and tackling deferred maintenance issues,” Napoli explained. “At its core, it’s a district-wide modernization project. But it’s really about improving the learning places and spaces.”

The first part of the project will take place at Holly Glen this summer with the replacement of the school’s HVAC system. Napoli said the school will be “completely redesigned from a mechanical standpoint” with the current heating and ventilation system being completely replaced and a modern, variable refrigerant flow system for heating and cooling added.  The new system is scheduled for completion prior to the start of next school year.

The remainder of the ESIP projects will begin in the fall. The first project to be tackled after Holly Glen will likely be a heating and cooling system for the middle school and high school gyms. Other upgrades such as new LED lighting and new boilers will follow. Napoli estimated all projects should be completed by December of 2021.

Williamstown High School graduation update

Later in the board meeting, Interim Superintendent Thomas Coleman and Williamstown High School Principal Angelo DeStefano gave an update on what the high school plans to do for graduation this year.

“The crowd restrictions limit us to 10 people in a crowd,” DeStefano said. “We’ve also received word that we’re not allowed to have any sort of procession or a motorcade. That kind of limits our graduation options.”

The school plans to film a virtual graduation over the course of a few weeks at the end of the school year. Students will be scheduled, 10 at a time, to visit the high school’s football field. Each senior’s name will be called and they will be able to walk across the field in their cap and gown. Two parents or guests will be able to come with each student to take photos. The high school also plans to film all of the graduation speeches to create a video looking as close to a real ceremony as possible. DeStefano said the high school has discussed its plan with local law enforcement to get its approval, as well as with members of the school community and senior class.

Even with those plans, the high school has not given up on the possibility of a live graduation sometime this summer.

“We want to reserve a date in July and a date in August in the event these social distancing restrictions and crowd restrictions are lifted and actually have our live graduation that the class of 2020 wants and that the community wants,” DeStefano said.

Coleman added that Williamstown Middle School wants to do something similar with its promotion ceremony and the elementary schools also have plans for moving-up ceremonies.

The district is also working on a schedule for students to collect belongings left at the schools. Coleman said a schedule is being worked on for students to come into the buildings to pick up their things beginning May 26 and continuing through June 5. Coleman described it as a “logistical undertaking,” as the district needs to abide by social distancing guidelines and schedule a specific time for each student to come in. Parents are expected to hear from their local schools by mid-May with more details.