Plans are in motion for Toms River school officials to finalize and publicly present their 2013-14 budget — which is expected to include about a 1.9 percent expenditures increase — but some aspects of the process remain unclear.
Still over a month away from adoption, administrators remain unsure how much state aid will flow into their budget and what impact Superstorm Sandy's devastation will have on taxes among the regional district's four municipalities.
"What we need to watch out for this year is what will the impact be on equalized valuations if Toms River plummets on a percentage basis," said Business Administrator William Doering during a budget committee meeting this week.
Toms River officials have said that the township's ratables base may have lost 20 percent because of damage caused by Sandy. The other municipalities in the regional school district — Beachwood, Pine Beach and South Toms River — do not appear to have sustained as dramatic of a ratables decrease.
"What that automatically does is redistribute the taxes between all four towns," Doering said.
In the $204 million 2012-13 school budget, taxes increased in Toms River and Pine Beach, but dropped in Beachwood and South Toms River. Those changes were based on a state formula, which the district cannot alter.
"We have no ability to tweak it or anything," Doering said.
But the administrator noted that those equalization figures are not yet available and it remains a possibility that the state may not complete them before the final budget is due. The scenario he presented was a "for instance," since hard figures are not yet known.
"The worst part, too, is that, if you read the articles in the paper, [the ratables base] may be staying down since a lot of these people won't be able to afford the flood insurance," said board member Edward Gearity. "The ratables not only will be down this year, they may be gone forever."
Superintendent of Schools Frank Roselli said that New Jersey Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf visited High School East this week to learn how Sandy impacted schools and its students. Roselli said that he was able to speak privately with Cerf about the challenges the district faces.
"No matter what we do with our budget, people in our community are suffering," Roselli said as he recounted his meeting with the commissioner. "Is there any relief that can be given to our district?"
Cerf indicated to Roselli that Gov. Chris Christie is looking into possibly supplying additional aid to stricken districts, and some state representatives are working to develop funding packages for devastated areas.
Another possible avenue for help is a Federal Emergency Management Agency program allowing for a loan of $5 million if a municipality's tax base is impaired. Toms River has applied for the loan; the school district will declare its intent to apply, but is still awaiting guidance on several questions that may make the loan a less attractive option.
For instance, if the district took the money, "does that mean next year we can only grow 2 percent on the deflated amount? Then we'd be in a $5 million hole" next year, Doering said. "I just don't want us stepping into a trap."
The district has alerted the municipalities it serves of the loan program, which has a Feb. 15 intent declaration deadline, so that they can apply and potentially use those funds should the valuation equalization cause a tax increase.
Several budget meetings are planned before the final public hearing and board adoption on March 21 at High School North: a Feb. 27 meeting in the district's 1144 Hooper Ave. administration office (and Feb. 28 should more time be needed for discussions) and a March 5 advertised public meeting at High School North.
"Nobody should be leaving this process saying that the budget is a mystery," said Doering, who said that he will make himself available to discuss the numbers with residents.
The budget — about 98 percent of which is fixed costs, according to Doering — is said to maintain staffing and program levels.
"We feel comfortable that it meets all the needs of the district," Roselli said.
State aid figures remain unknown, but should be distributed about two days after Christie's Feb. 25 budget address. The budget is due to the county March 7, which is a challenge given the unknowns.
"You're rolling out the aid that could have major implications on a budget and giving districts about a week to not only finish the budget, but get it approved by the board and submitted," Doering said. "The whole thing is a little bit crazy."