Mt. Laurel board of education approves submission of 2020-’21 budget

Literacy, professional development remain district’s priorities

Madeleine Maccar The Sun: The Board of Education budget presentation was tentatively presented March 17 at the Mt. Laurel Township School District’s administration building. It was approved for submission April 28.

Mt. Laurel’s Board of Education last month approved its 2020-2021 proposed budget for submission to the Executive County Superintendent of Schools.

Both Superintendent Dr. George J. Rafferty and School Business Administrator/Board Secretary Robert Wachter Jr. presented the budget to the board during the April 28 virtual meeting, which can be viewed here.

Rafferty recognized how the PTOs and the Mt. Laurel Public Education Fund “have been longtime supporters of our school district and have provided a lot of enhancements to our overall educational programs.” He cited numerous after-school clubs and extracurriculars, tuition assistance for at-risk students, technology and staff support that they make possible. 

“There are many kinds of activities and enhancements that they help fund that just make our district that much more extra special,” Rafferty said. He also observed that the public education fund is currently more than $1 million. 

With literacy at the forefront, language arts and refurbished science kits are among the district’s priorities for the 2020-’21 school year. With the all-day kindergarten program currently in its first full year, next year’s budget allocates funds for the additional support necessary in sustaining its longevity and success, based on projected enrollment throughout the six elementary schools. Professional development for faculty also remained a significant item on the budget, with particular focus on literacy, mathematics and curriculum writing. 

Virtual meetings and remote learning underscored the importance of technology, Rafferty observed, and added that the district will continue to regard it as a necessity.

“I guess I can’t emphasize enough how important [technology] has become,’” the superintendent said, thanking the board for its “visionary” efforts over the years in championing the role of technology.

One of the upshots of remote learning is that numerous capital projects have been undertaken throughout the district, with increased security measures and updates to school facilities and transportation alike being at the forefront of those projects. 

Wachter then discussed the district’s numbers and offered historical data for comparison, ultimately indicating budget growth of $312,535, or 0.40 percent, to arrive at a 2020-2021 budget of 78,555,354 (up from the previous $78,242,819). The 2020-’21 tax levy increase stands at 2.85 percent.

According to Wachter, funding comes from a combination of the local school tax (83.7 percent), state aid (8.1 percent), federal aid (1.6 percent) and district-generated money (6.6 percent). He also outlined how that money is spent, with the district’s instructional program getting 74.2 percent of it. Transportation receives 4.8 percent, 1.1 percent goes to capital outlay, debt service is at 4.6 percent, operation maintenance and utilities receive 8.5 percent. The remaining 6.8 percent is allocated for administrative costs.

“We like to emphasize that the bulk of it is spent on instructional programs,” Wachter said. 

Wachter also highlighted the district’s numerous cost-saving measures. Among them is a South Jersey school health insurance fund that nearly 70 school districts are involved with for health benefits. 

“It has truly benefited the school district, the taxpayers and our employees,” he said. Wachter also cited the district’s money-saving initiatives as especially timely and relevant, a way to “help insulate us against any downturns in the economy we may be facing in the future.”

While the general budget is only increasing by 0.40 percent, the general fund — which Wachter described as the majority of expenses — is going up $1,297,045, or about 1.79 percent, from $72,464,728 to $73,761,773. 

For the average home in Mt. Laurel assessed at $237,600, the local school tax increase would be $33.27 (or 1.25 percent for the ’20-’21 school year. For comparison, Wachter illustrated that Mt. Laurel school costs are coming in below both the state average and costs of comparably sized districts.

With the board’s approval to submit the budget, it is anticipated to go into effect July 1.

Rafferty’s superintendent report included praise for how well the district has adapted to remote learning and virtual operations. 

“I do want to report, on behalf of our schools, how very, very proud I am of the Mt. Laurel School District and all of our staff, our educators, our teachers, our administrators, our custodians, our food service workers and all the staff who work within our schools,” he said. “I think, even during this unprecedented time, our district has risen to unprecedented levels.”

In addition to staying on course with the school year’s established plans, Rafferty also praised the district’s ability to prioritize students’ mental health in a time that has upended their usual routines, including making after-school activities available again. 

“Our students’ and families’ emotional well-being are very, very important to us and we believe that by connecting with them and teaching them in live time, each and every single day, is at the hallmark of what we want to do and it’s what we believe in,” Rafferty noted.

“Our students are home now and they’re feeling very isolated, and school has played a major role in their lives as far as their friendships and socializing, which is sort of the hidden curriculum students get out of school every day and they’re missing all of that.”