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Sai Bhargavi lives in Berkeley Heights, which she and her husband chose in order, she says, to raise their child in what she calls “a vibrant, welcoming community with great schools.” Bhargavi closely follows the district’s budgeting, capital projects, and strategic initiatives.
And she’s not happy.
Recently Bhargavi, who volunteers for global non-profits like ASHA, and used to serve with the Berkeley Heights Volunteer Rescue Squad, contacted NJ Education Report to express her discontent with the district’s lack of transparency about the budget. In a document called “We Can Do Better,” she compares the School Board’s refusal to release information, in comparison to other nearby districts that have provided high-level budget and audit reports to the community, But,
Here in our town, we have the finance committee chair Ms. Young, whose pre-election promise was to deliver clear communication and consider every voice but is yet to deliver on both. Ms. Penna, the board president, promised a better budget process compared to last year Both the president and Vice President Ms. Young are yet to respond to my questions asked at the board meetings and emailed to their board email addresses since January 2023.
In that email, Bhargavi lambasted the district’s failure to be accountable to the public: “The practice of withholding budget documents and audit reports until the meeting does not allow the public to formulate questions ahead of time and gives the impression that you actually do not want any questions at all. That is almost guaranteed to create public distrust of the Board and the Administration…Is it even feasible to expect the taxpaying residents to grasp the details of over a $60+ million dollar budget based on a 30-minute presentation with no real data?”
In a follow-up Bhargavi reports this:
Some key takeaways from the Berkeley Heights Public Schools Tentative budget presented for 2023-24.
- Restructuring the administrative team.- No clear picture on what this actually means based on the presentation and responses received.
- Reduce athletics budget – Dr. Varley has asked the athletics director Ms. Clifton to look into cost savings by suggesting the district has a high number of assistant coaches but as Mr. Sincaglia pointed out reducing them won’t bring in the expected cost savings.
- Reduce secretarial staff – 3.3 FTE
- Reduce elementary HELP staff – 12 to 8
- Reduce nontenured teaching staff (5 FTE elementary, 5FTE middle school & high school)
- Discussion on the impact of courtesy busing.
But we are adding 2 SLEO III officers! If our district’s focus is on students’ needs especially coming out of a pandemic with learning loss, should the superintendent be recommending cutting teaching staff? Do we actually need SRO officers in elementary schools? Will they be addressing the learning loss or teachers?
The business administrator could have done a far better job based on feedback given last year. And public sharing examples of preliminary budgets from well run districts. Clearly missing in the budget presentation was any comparisons to how some critical budget line items are increasing vs decreasing. The most integral aspect of any budget is to show a comparison from the last two years to projected numbers for this year.
Also distinctly missing in the budget presentation were:
- Cost per student increases.
- Administrative cost per student
- Legal cost per student
- Comparison of cost per pupil with our neighboring districts and to the state average.
Our district has become very top heavy in the last two years. We need to look at the administrative cost per student in our district. We spend much more than high-ranking districts like Millburn and our neighboring New Providence district. What’s the added value of spending more? We need clarity on what’s budgeted for the superintendent and two assistant superintendent salaries for 2023-24.
It cannot be blended into the $1,493,609 budgeted for general administration. Our business admin owes us a clear answer on what’s budgeted for these roles as well for the business office in $594,422.
We have a superintendent supported by two assistant superintendents who currently cost our district a little over $600,000 in salaries plus benefits. Now that Superintendent Varley recommended a tentative budget that the majority of the board approved with staffing cuts yesterday, we need to question why we NEED these high paid administrative positions. Prior to late 2021, we had Dr. Varley who was bought in at the top of the salary range to oversee the entire district with Mr. McKinney as assistant superintendent. But a new position for K-5 superintendent was approved by a board that was being replaced in a few months in late 2021.
Also, we have supervisors who do NOT instruct, unlike supervisors in New Providence. But instead, some find time from their day jobs to take on additional responsibilities to be the custodian of records “designee” (with clear conflict of interest).
What’s the added value of being top heavy? What does the top heavy administration to do for student achievement?
Superintendent Dr.Varley, Business Administrator Ms.Kot and the Board members need to answer – Why are they requesting $62,901,053 with declining enrollment when our comparable district New Providence is only asking for $51,989,084?
We deserve better from our elected representatives serving on the board and from the district administration. As elected representatives and public servants, each one has a fiduciary responsibility to answer the key questions before they recommend or vote on the final budget.
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