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Saturday, May 25, 2024

After Losing $1 Million, Blairstown Elementary Keeps Teaching

Blairstown Elementary’s board of education held a well-attended meeting on April 25 to discuss next year’s budget. Photo by C. O’Chang, 04/2025.

After the cherry blossoms fade, an uglier season comes – school budget season. In its April 25 meeting, Blairstown Elementary’s board of education met to vote on the school’s budget for next year.

First came some celebrations. Dr. Patrick Ketch, superintendent, announced that the school’s elevator is now operational after 22 months. The announcement was met with relief and general applause.

Board and audience members also enjoyed principal Colleen Silvestri’s summary of the school’s recent special events, especially their field trips. Blairstown Elementary School (BES) students visited the Paradox Museum, Warren County’s Strategic Thinking Day, a Rubik’s Cube competition (where two of BES’s fifth graders placed in the top three slots of the novice category), Fonthill Castle and the Mercer Museum. 

As the days warm up, the board also looked ahead to those all-important days at the end of the year. The sixth grade promotional ceremony will fall on Friday, June 14, this year, while the last day of the school year will fall on Monday, June 17.

The celebratory last day of school– on a Monday? This timing didn’t strike all board members as ideal. Later in the meeting, this led to a discussion about the possibility of changing how unused snow days are currently handled in the school calendar.

Instead of “giving back” unused snow days at the end of the year, which leads to an early summer break but also a variable end date, another possibility would be to “give back” unused snow days during mid-year holidays– for example, by extending spring break or Memorial Day weekend.

Such a policy change would allow Blairstown Elementary to fix the date of the last school day far in advance. However, since this change would require more extensive discussion to enact, the board tabled the conversation for future consideration after gathering teacher and community feedback. 

The meeting focused primarily on next year’s budget. Like many smaller schools in Warren County, Blairstown Elementary has seen a steady reduction in its state equalization aid since 2018, when New Jersey recalibrated its school funding formula. While some schools across the state have seen their budgets under the new formula, BES has lost state equalization in every annual budget over the past seven years.

Next year reflects the final version of the state’s new funding formula. Under the new formula, Blairstown will still receive a little over $900,000 in state equalization aid. However, this reflects a loss of over $1 million in state funding since 2018, a reduction of about 54%.

There’s never a good time for a drastic budget cut. But in a time of inflation, with costs of transportation, health benefits and facility maintenance all rising, Blairstown Elementary has found itself doubly squeezed. This is in addition to an $118,157 increase in tuition for the local charter school, according to the budget presentation.

In their presentation, school business administrator Donna Williams and Dr. Ketch applauded school administrators for continuing to deliver quality education in this harrowing environment without resorting to staff cuts.

Business administrator Donna Williams and Dr. Patrick Ketch, superintendent, emphasized BES’ loss of over $1 million in state equalization aid since 2018. Image courtesy of Blairstown Elementary School.

Pressed by sizable budget cuts on one side and rising expenses on the other, Blairstown has found itself depending primarily on taxes for funding. In next year’s budget, BES will draw nearly 83% of its revenue from local taxpayers. 

In their budget presentation, Williams and Ketch highlighted BES’ unique reliance on its local taxpayers for funding. Image courtesy of Blairstown Elementary School.

In New Jersey, this level of dependence on local taxes is fairly unusual. Per the NJ Department of Education’s “Taxpayers’ Guide to Education Spending,” local taxes account for less than half of school revenues statewide. While many other schools use state equalization aid to make up the difference in their budgets, the new funding formula has reduced Blairstown’s available state aid. To continue running, BES must depend on its local tax levy.

That tax levy is increasing by 3.73% next year. To give context, Williams and Ketch pointed out that Blairstown Elementary is far from alone in increasing its tax levy. One factor is the state funding reformulation.

While Warren County will see an overall increase of $9.9 million in K-12 aid, several specific districts within the county will see their equalization aid fall once more or, in the case of Allamuchy, Frelinghuysen, Harmony, and White Townships, drop to zero. Combined with rising costs, several local districts have been forced to raise taxes in order to keep going.

Several state lawmakers have recently proposed measures to address or mitigate budget cuts, which have hit 140 school districts statewide. In the meantime, Blairstown Elementary has passed its budget for the 2024 to 2025 budget year. 

Community members can find the budget presentation and a user-friendly budget on BES’ website.

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.