As you may know, Robbinsville stands out among its peers as a community deeply involved in education and one that is steadfastly committed to academic excellence. Despite being ranked as the lowest per pupil spending district in Mercer County at $11,142 and the third lowest spending of the 69 similarly sized New Jersey K-12 districts, Robbinsville Schools consistently competes with the top districts in the state. This is clearly evidenced by our postgraduate students’ acceptance to and success in top tier colleges and universities as well as those thriving within a global workforce.

We continually strive to offer a wide variety of rigorous and diverse learning experiences, both in-class and extracurricular, to convey the essential skills and knowledge necessary for a productive and creative approach to life in the real world. In planning for the 2017-2018 school year, we face yet another challenging budget cycle. We continue to be confronted with increased enrollment, flat state aid and no new viable sources of revenue. The result of this is a proposed increase in the local tax levy of 3.84 percent. This consists of a 2-percent increase on the general fund ($702,881) and an additional 1.84 percent for increased enrollment ($395,338) and health premiums ($243,460) as allowed by state law. The average Robbinsville home, assessed at $369,900, would see an annual increase of $118.31.

Understandably, community members may question the need to increase taxes in the upcoming school year. There are many critical factors that contribute to this decision.

Growing Enrollment

Since 2009, Robbinsville Schools has experienced a dramatic 15-percent increase in its student population. Current enrollment stands at 3,127 students. This year alone, our student population grew by 3 percent. We anticipate continued increases with the completion of the Springside, Line Road, and Perrineville Road developments.

Lack of Sufficient State Aid

Robbinsville Schools ranks as New Jersey’s 12th most underfunded of 591 districts. According to funding guidelines established by the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, our cumulative underfunding since 2009 is nearly $60M.

Rising Fixed Costs

Fixed costs such as healthcare, utilities, and salaries force us to continue to look for non-traditional ways to support the General Fund. A hallmark of Robbinsville Schools has been the ability to offset rising expenditures with alternative revenue sources. Some of these include facilities rentals in excess of $150,000 annually; activity fees to offset the expense of extracurricular and athletic programs; Robbinsville Extended Day program to help to defray the cost of facility maintenance, IT, payroll personnel, custodial fees, and utilities, and added enhancements like the new playground at Sharon School; transportation jointures; tuition-based Preschool and Kindergarten programs; energy cost reduction like the ESIP and Demand Response initiatives.

On March 29, I joined Board President Matt O’Grady and School Business Administrator Beth Brooks in a meeting with Mayor Dave Fried to discuss the impact of our current fiscal situation on residents. Our goal was to explore options to partner together in ways that will benefit the entire community. In addition to the current shared services agreements, Mayor Fried and his team have offered to assist us with capital projects necessary to maintain the health and safety of our facilities and which could not be funded in next year’s budget. Furthermore, the township’s purchase of Windsor School will allow us to place much needed funds in capital reserve in anticipation of upcoming roofing and HVAC projects. We are grateful for their collaborative support and look forward to working hand in hand to enhance our schools.

Even with funds from alternative revenue and savings from shared services, we were $1.5M away from a balanced budget. This left us in the untenable position of having to make some tough personnel decisions and ultimately reducing two positions while placing an increased tax burden on community members.

As we remain deeply committed to fiscal stewardship and instructional excellence, we continue to actively research sustainable revenue sources for a multi-year approach to the budget. The Board of Education is exploring options such as a joint solar project with the township, refurbishing a billboard for advertising space at Sharon Elementary School, and the possibility of constructing a cell tower as potential revenue generators. Moreover, we continue to search for ways to reduce rising health care costs and to advocate with legislators for our fair share of state aid.

As we look toward the year ahead, I want to assure you that, in spite of the budget challenges we face, we will prioritize the nature of our investments in ways that will result in the district’s continued success and competitive edge. We will remain true to the values of our community ensuring a strong financial foundation while driving improved outcomes for all students.

Kathie Foster is acting superintendent of Robbinsville Schools.