Ironically, interim Superintendent of Schools Kenneth Knops stated that one of the goals of the Secaucus Board of Education for the school year 2017-2018 is “to oversee and coordinate the hiring of a new superintendent.” Knops’ two-year tenure as the interim head of the district officially ends this November; however, the school board has been interviewing at least nine potential candidates to take over the mantle from Knops when school ends in June. Knops outlined three other goals during a PowerPoint presentation made at the school budget hearing held May 4 at Huber Street School. Unfortunately, only a very few individuals heard the presentation made by Knops and board secretary/business administrator Grace Yeo. To say attendance of residents (read taxpayers and parents of school-age children) at the public hearing was sparse is being generous! Huber Street kindergarten teachers Judy Jaeger and Ashley Yeo (Grace Yeo’s niece) were joined at the hearing by high school athletic teacher Nancy Lynch, who also serves as the president of the teachers’ union, the Secaucus Education Association. All but one (Lance Bartletta) school trustee was present, in addition to this reporter, Superintendent Knops, Secretary Yeo, Administrative Assistant Fran Bialkowski, and staff members filming the session. Considering the school budget is over forty-one million dollars, the lack of interest by residents and other district staff was disheartening.
Grace Yeo prepared a thorough and informative presentation and shared the explanation duties with Ken Knops. The other goals the superintendent pointed out are: (2) “To keep our students in our school district.” He explained that most of the students whose parents chose to send them to charter schools over the past few years have returned to the Secaucus public schools. “I’ve always championed hiring the best product [teachers and administrators] out there,” Knops remarked. He also brought up the challenge to the district when the new county high-tech high school being built at Laurel Hill opens in two years. While many charter school students have returned to local schools, Yeo pointed to the $1,601,712 the district will pay in tuition fees for Secaucus students who still attend out-of-district schools. (The cost in 2016-17 was $1,419,643, a difference of an additional $182,069!). The other goals Knops elucidated were (3) “To manage the budget within the two percent mandated cap,” which the budget is, coming in at exactly two percent, and (4) “To build and maintain a strong bridge of communication between the board of education, and the school and town communities.” Knops commented on the extraordinary relationship the school board has with the community and mayor and town council, noting that it is the best relationship he’s encountered compared with the three other districts he has served in as superintendent.
Both Yeo and Knops commented on the fact that Secaucus taxpayers fund ninety-seven percent of the school budget and that state aid has been a constant of only $999,542 for years. The meager state aid the district receives has been offset by the town council absorbing the school tax increase of $679,753 this year. “The best news of all,” Yeo said, “is that this is the second year in a row the mayor and council are absorbing the increase.” If taxpayers were paying for the increase it would amount to a $19 increase on a home assessed at $175,000, or $1.58 more per month.
The biggest driver in the 2017-18 budget is the “regular program” category at $12,363,196, an increase of $350,249 from the previous school year. Next is “employee benefits” at $6,155,213, an increase of $447,912 from the 2016-17 budget. The next largest chunk of the budget is for “operation and maintenance” at $3,615,412, a decrease of $184,569 from last year. The “debt” category comes in next at $3,174,631, another decrease over last year in the amount of $22,457. “Special education” stands at $2,934,561, an increase of $27,474. A decrease of $151,634 was realized in the “general/school administration” category that stands at $2,543,729 for the 2017-18 school year. Business administrator Yeo explained that the decrease was the result of not replacing two positions in the central board office. Several other categories showed a decrease in budgeted amounts, including “media services,” “improve(sic) of instruction,” “staff training,” “capital,” and “grants.” Funds for “transportation” rose from $1,412,639 to $1,477,726, a slight increase.
Secaucus finds itself in the middle of the pack in Hudson County in terms of the actual per pupil cost at $17,580 for the 2015-16 school year. Hoboken had the highest cost, at $27,006, for the same school year, while North Bergen had the lowest at $15,577. There will be four new staff hires for the 2017-18 school year: (1) one half-time pre-school teacher, (2) one full-time high school chemistry teacher, (3) one full-time custodian, and (4) one full-time network technician.
Grace Yeo remarked that the budget shows no cuts in programs while adding staff. She said the budget was a collaborative effort involving just about every staff member of the district. Board President Jack McStowe commented, “It’s [the budget] not easy. The state doesn’t give us money. Still, we add stuff!”
The 2017-2018 school budget was approved unanimously by the votes of McStowe, Vice President Ruby Pantoliano, Kathy Huber O’Connell, Joe Lewis, Joan Cali, Lou Giele, Norma Hanley, and Sharon Dellafave.