hot-topic rightBy DUSTIN RACIOPPI

With a voter-rejected schools budget now landing in the lap of the Middletown Township Committee for recommended cuts, Mayor Gerard Scharfenberger is calling for township teachers to accept a one-year pay freeze, a move he estimates will save the district $3 million.

“That’s pretty significant,” he said. “That would go a long way with saving jobs, with very little effort.”

Scharfenberger, echoing Governor Chris Christie, put out the request on Friday, just days after the school board’s $140.3 million budget was handily defeated and three board incumbents were voted out. Scharfenberger said that was the voters showing support for such action.

With the exception of Democrat Township Committeeman Sean Byrnes, who hasn’t yet spoken with Scharfenberger, the committee is also in agreement that a freeze is the answer.

“It was something I’m 100-percent behind. It’s what the governor has asked,” said Committeewoman Pamela Brightbill. “With the budget defeated so soundly, it showed me, personally, that the residents showed they were backing what the governor was asking.”

Christie strongly suggested last month that teachers and school employees accept a one-year pay freeze to make up major deficits and help curb layoffs, program cuts and increases in property taxes. Teachers in Red Bank and Fair Haven agreed to forgo raises prior to their education budgets gaining approval last week.

Middletown Superintendent Karen Bilbao was not available to comment on the board’s position Monday morning.

The district has already cut more than $9 million from the current year’s spending level. The plan calls for the layoffs of 124 employees, including 72.5 teaching positions, according to the Asbury Park Press.

The education budget typically accounts for about 60 percent of tax bills.

“The freezing of salaries seems to be a passive way to help the budget,” he said. “In this economic climate it’s very reasonable.”

The school board must meet with the committee to discuss where to cut from the failed budget. Scharfenberger said the committee will officially make recommendations to the board, which can either accept or decline. Since voters do not get a second vote on the spending plan, it must be approved by the board. If not, it heads to the state Department of Education for approval, Scharfenberger said.

The school board will meet Wednesday night to swear in its three newly-elected members.

Scharfenberger said he’s hoping to hear back from the schools  by Friday so the committee can move forward with its own budget planning.

“I wanted to get a response so I knew where we stood,” he said.”We don’t have much time.”

Scharfenberger said he should know later this week when the committee will introduce the municipal budget, which was recently facing a nearly $5 million  shortfall resulting from what he has called a “perfect storm” of fiscal woes.

The township must pay out $2 million in pension contributions, $1.5 million in payouts to retirees, was cut $1.6 million in state aid, and abnormally heavy snowfalls put the town $900,000 over budget, he said.

In response, Scharfenberger laid out 12 possible ‘decisive actions‘ to close the gap.

Here’s the budget that voters shot down: 2010-11-final-proposed-budget-revised