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QUESTIONS HAMPER DRAFT SCHOOL BUDGET

laura-moranaRed Bank Schools Superintendent Laura Morana talks to the local press Thursday about the district’s bleak budget outlook . (Photo by Dustin Racioppi)

By DUSTIN RACIOPPI

The waiting, as Tom Petty sings, is the hardest part. Only, he wasn’t working on a multimillion dollar school budget when he penned that tune.

Laura Morana, like so many school administrators in New Jersey who must have drafts of next year’s budgets turned in soon, is playing the waiting game, left in the dark by Gov. Chris Christie’s somewhat nebulous pledge to freeze state aid to school districts in order to make up for a huge budget gap.

When she sat down on Thursday to talk with the local press, the Red Bank schools superintendent was bouncing between budget meetings, just a couple of the many she’s had in the last couple weeks.

She’s already reconciled with the fact that the state is in a financial hurt locker. She’s even OK with dipping into the district’s $701,000 surplus to compensate for the reduction in aid, albeit begrudgingly. But considering she has to have a draft 2010-11 budget turned into the county prior to Christie’s state budget presentation on March 16, Morana would like to know what to expect.

“Right now we’re dealing with a million questions and nothing else. No answers,” she said. “You just don’t even know.”

But you can guess, which she’s doing. She said the district’s budget surplus is used toward the next year’s budget, so she’s going into next year’s plan with a $700k deficit. State aid has traditionally been around $2 million, but much of that is normally required to be funneled into charter school funding, she said. The district budget last year was about $15 million.

“I’ve heard so many different things. At this point we are looking at the development of a budget that begins with $701,000 as a deficit and possibly a 10- to 15-percent reduction in state aid,” she said. “Which is a significant amount.”

So what does that really mean? Well for starters, you won’t be seeing what you did last year, when the board unveiled a zero-increase spending plan.

“There’s no way we could come in with a proposal that won’t have an increase,” she said. “It’s just a question of what it will be.”

The implications could be much greater, though. Even before Christie announced he was cutting aid, Morana combed the budget and found she can cut two positions — without layoffs — that are no longer justifiable, she said. Elimination of in-school and extra-curricular programs are certainly on the table, she added. Layoffs would be a worst-case scenario, she said.

Undoubtedly, Morana said, the district will feel the pain. She said Red Bank has built up an education system that’s improved and continues to get better. This move is going to inhibit that progress, she said.

“It can be the ideal learning environment for children and I can just see that being dismantled in a way,” she said.

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