SHAMONG >> The Lenape Regional High School District (LRHSD) Board of Education April 28 adopted a $158.7 million General Fund budget for the 2021-2022 school year, which represents a 2.17 percent increase over the previous year.

The increase in the budget was necessitated due to multiple factors, including rising costs of health insurance and increased needs for required special education offerings, despite the fact that the State of New Jersey has refused to reconsider its continuing cuts in State Aid to the LRHSD.

In that regard, State Aid funding to the LRHSD decreased by an additional 4.24 percent for this budget year, which equals a further decrease of $1.110 million for this school year alone, on top of the previous year’s reductions. This reduction is due to the passage of the S-2 school-funding “reform” bill in July 2018, which will result in the total state aid reduction of $7.3 million to the LRHSD over seven years, with a cumulative loss of $26.2 million. In addition, the State Funding Formula for Special Education aka “Underfunded Formula” has underfunded LRHSD Special Education costs by over $4.1 million.

In the face of those challenges, LRHSD Board of Education member David Stow emphasized the board’s commitment to fiscal responsibility to the communities the district serves. According to the New Jersey Department of Education’s Taxpayer’s Guide to Education, the LRHSD continues to rank as one of the best performing school districts in the state with the least number of administrators per faculty member and per student, as compared to similar districts. Additionally, the LRHSD spends well below the state-mandated regional limit on administrative costs per pupil.

Mr. Stow noted that there were several one-time only revenue sources that were used to balance the FY21 budget – excess surplus from FY20 (due to mandatory closure of facilities last spring), anticipated fund balance from FY21 and withdrawal from emergency reserve account.

To generate additional revenue, LRHSD is piloting two new tuition programs for students located outside of the LRHSD region – Project Search, a Special Education program for students 19 – 21 and, at Seneca High School, the JROTC Air Force and Automotive Certification programs.

Due to the cuts in state aid funding, Stow also noted the administration’s recommendations as part of the budget for the restructuring of 20 staff or projected elimination of positions in order to realize a savings of $1.8 million. Scheduling efficiency has provided additional cost savings where the district will be sharing teachers between buildings, combining courses of upper levels, along with overloads for teachers instead of replacement.

The LRHSD also factored in a 7.10 percent increase in healthcare costs into the 2021-22 budget. The estimated employee contribution is $350,000 less than last year due to the New Jersey Educators Health Plan that was offered by the State in January 2021.

The proposed budget adds no new regular education programs, however, required special education expenditures are increasing. In that regard, the LRHSD will serve an additional 138 special education students for the 2021-2022 school year. To accommodate the increase in special education students, the district must add three nurse-paraprofessionals for three students and 32 part-time paraprofessional positions. However, to maximize the efficiency of the provision of required special education programs, the LRSHD is expanding in-district offerings, including for those special education students who remain eligible for special education and related services from the LRHSD after the traditional four years of high school.

In response to the reduction of nearly $7.3 million in state aid over a seven-year period, the LRHSD joined other school districts to form Support Our Students (SOS), which lobbies and advocates for its member school districts at the state level.

According to Superintendent of Schools, Carol Birnbohm, Ed. D, state aid allocated to the LRHSD has continued to comprise a lower percentage of the annual budget, declining from nearly 40 percent in the 1994-1995 school year, to just 15.79 percent of next year’s proposed budget. With the legislative changes in state aid, that portion is projected to drop to 14.07 percent in the 2024-2025 school year, placing additional burden on taxpayers from the LRHSD region in the years ahead.

Though the LRHSD is faced with significantly reduced funding from the state, the district continues to excel as one of the top regional school districts in New Jersey with overwhelming support from its communities.

“Our Board has never ceased to be amazed by the donations that come to us from our communities, our organizations and the businesses that support the Lenape Regional High School District,” said Stow.

“Accepting financial support from our community has helped make it possible for us to bridge the gap to improve athletic facilities, purchase new equipment and support innovative programs to benefit our students,” added Birnbohm.

As one of the highest achieving districts in the state, the LRHSD has shown that innovation, creativity and achievement are integral to its success. With an average graduation rate of 97.4 percent among its four high schools, the district reports that nearly 80.4 percent of the Class of 2020 continued its education across at least 256 four-year and two-year colleges and universities.

According to Birnbohm, LRHSD students’ academic success tells only part of the story. “Our staff and students are regional, state and national award winners and champions,” she said. They’ve won awards for special education programs, marching band, business, fine arts, robotics, community service and JROTC, not to mention athletics.”

Budget information, including tax impacts for each sending district, is posted on the Lenape Regional High School District website, www.lrhsd.org. For more information, contact Business Administrator Connie Stewart at 609-268-2000, ext. 553600, or cstewart@lrhsd.org.

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