Monday, March 4, 2024

Amidst Drastic Budget Cuts, North Warren Strives to Sustain Excellence

Dr. Kevin Brenan expresses concerns about the Ridge & Valley Charter School funding and oversight. Photo by C. O’Chang, 5/2023

Like any veteran educator, North Warren Superintendent Dr. Jeanene Dutt knows how to command a crowd’s attention. She opened the North Warren Board of Education meeting on April 24th with a presentation on next year’s budget. Rather than sticking to slides of spreadsheets and tax forms, Dr. Dutt told the story of a district finding resourceful solutions to hefty challenges.

The core of her story was budget cuts. New Jersey’s S2 legislation, which seeks to equalize school funding across the state by reallocating funds according to school need, has increased funding for most of NJ’s schools. However, according to the state’s formulations, over 150 districts were designated as overfunded– and these schools have seen their state funding reduced year by year.

North Warren is one of the districts deemed overfunded. Next year will be its seventh year of budget reductions, adding up to an eye-popping overall loss.

“After next year’s budget, we will have lost just shy of… $4 million,” Dr. Dutt told the BOE. “So just try to process that right there: $4 million out of this budget, over a seven year period, is an exponential amount of money.”

Over the years, these cuts have led to a total of 17 staff positions eliminated due to insufficient funding. Dr. Dutt went on to explain that North Warren is one of the districts with the highest percentage decrease in the state of New Jersey, ranking in the top ten for most drastic budget cuts.

“Every single area in the school has lost staff members: administration, counseling, CST [the Child Study Team], all the teaching staff,” she said.

In the face of these cuts, North Warren turns to next year with an eye toward creative solutions.

First, Dr. Dutt highlighted the fact that no positions will be eliminated due to budgeting next year. “We have not cut a staff member with this budget,” she said. “So right now, that is a highlight because there’s no impact… on our student programming, our staffing and our extracurricular activities.”

Dr. Dutt listed some of North Warren’s continuing successes. On the technology front, every incoming seventh grader continues to receive a new Chromebook for their schoolwork. The Portrait of a Patriot program continues to connect the school with families and the community and bring more work experiences to North Warren upperclassmen.

Aggregate student scores on the pre-ACT, PSAT, and SAT remain top-notch: “Three years in a row, we were named highest performing high school in Warren County,” Dr. Dutt reported. Meanwhile, over 50% of the student body is engaged in athletics or extracurricular activities.

Dr. Dutt hoped the list would convey the ongoing strength of North Warren’s program, made more remarkable by the district’s reduced resources. “Our teachers are doing amazing things with less, and that is what I wanted to focus on.”

Jennifer Kerr, Business Administrator, followed up with a presentation on the school’s other expenses. Several costs are rising next year: staff health insurance is increasing by 18%, transportation by 6%, and tuition for students transferred to Ridge and Valley Charter School by $100,000. The middle school needs a new roof, a project that will cost around one million, while the need for new boilers will run the school about $800,000.

Kerr’s comments prompted Board Member Dr. Kevin Brennan to speak up. The charter school’s rising tuition had caught his attention. The Board clarified two key numbers. First was the total cost that North Warren will pay next year to send students to Ridge and Valley: $261,000. Second was the total number of students being transferred to Ridge and Valley: nine.

Paying $261,000 for a total of nine students breaks down to a tuition cost of $29,000 per student. “A tuition of $29,000 a year for students,” Dr. Brennan remarked. “Without any sort of accountability to us, let alone to the state, as far as whether or not $29,000 per student is appropriate.”

Dr. Brennan reminded the board of Dr. Dutt’s earlier presentation. In the face of a statewide reckoning on school funding, the unquestioned cost of charter school tuition struck him as unusual “passivity… on the part of the state,” inexplicably receiving little consideration compared to the rest of the state’s budget examination.

Dr. Brennan commended the school staff for maintaining an excellent program despite deep cuts. “But it’s not without effort, some pain,” he said. “And yet over here, we’re paying this amazing amount of money for something that we have no idea what it’s about.”

Other board members agreed with Dr. Brennan’s concerns, including Dr. Dutt. “When you do look at the $29,000 that we pay in tuition rates there versus how much our per-pupil expenditure is here, it’s significantly greater,” she said.

In the meantime, North Warren is exploring means of making do with less. Dr. Dutt met with the Blairstown Town Council to explain the district’s budgeting woes and reported that the school was well-received, with several people asking her how they could help.

Dr. Dutt was excited to pass an agenda item directly related to that request. “In working with our insurance broker, we are able to have community members, parents, students, staff that want to volunteer to do low level upgrades to the building with us,” she said.

There will be some restrictions on the projects that community members can contribute to, but board members expressed approval that the measure would allow the district to access the manpower it needs for some labor-intensive cleaning, painting, and staining projects.

Community contribution is already helping North Warren. Dr. Dutt announced that the PTO had donated $10,000 from its tricky tray fundraiser to North Warren’s most pressing building projects.

Leaving the budget talk behind, student representatives Mikayla Serdinsky and Richard Pilny finished the meeting agenda with an update on student events.

They mentioned Spirit Week, the Patriot Games, the science fair, the Honors Society’s Induction Night, the robotics competition, the spring musical, and the jazz band’s award-winning performance at the fifth annual Jazz Fest– a long list for any school, even in a good year.

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.