The Belleville Board of Education heard Monday night from state officials that Belleville Middle School academics are improving, while the Township Council is charged with reducing spending on the defeated 2013-14 school budget.
The Belleville Township Council on April 29 discussed how much funding to cut from the defeated $63.5 million 2013-14 school budget, with one council member suggesting the budget should be cut so the average $277 tax hike is reduced to a zero increase.
School officials declined to comment on the budget Monday night, instead focusing on the middle school’s improving situation.
School board members Joseph Longo and Peter Zangari, Jr. both said that the presentation should put residents’ concerns about the school being “taken over” by the state to rest, and instead explain that two specific student populations needed to improve.
Brooke Rosenkrantz, project manager for the state Department of Education’s Regional Achievement Committee, told the school board the committee’s work with the Belleville Middle School differred greatly from larger problems in a school district like Camden.
“In Camden, you have 24 out of 26 schools that are in the most dire straits,” Rosenkrantz said. “Here, you are a focus school that is not in the direst of straits, but just needed to close a gap between subgroups, which I believe we can do in two years.”
Gayle Griffin presented the school board at Monday’s meeting with the state’s report on the first year of improving two smaller groups of middle school students’ standardized test scores.
The two subgroups are special education and African-American students, but overall, Griffin told the audience the school “is doing great.”
Griffin said the committee worked with middle school administrators to support improving leadership and the school’s climate and culture.
The committee also aimed to make instruction more effective, maximize the amount of time teaching staff spends with students, and reach out more to the community and families, she said.
Ten specialists were employed at no extra cost to Belleville School District to improve standardized test scores by five percent, finish a new curriculum and increase community participation, all in two years.
“We are here to focus the school’s leadership on really setting up students well,” Griffin said.
Principal Dana Cavallo praised the committee and said she and her administrators will continue to work hard.
“What a difference a year makes,” Cavallo said. “We’re going to get there. Failure is not an option.”
The positive news comes after only five percent of registered voters came out April 16 to reject the school budget by nearly 70 votes.
The small percentage of residents voted down the school budget 464 to 377.
The budget raises taxes an average of $277 for a home assessed at the township average.
Councilman Kevin Kennedy said he would support cutting enough to reduce the average tax increase to zero, but that the council has not yet had enough time to sift through all the budget information.
Kennedy is one of three council members who will meet as a committee with school board members, joining Mayor Ray Kimble and former school board president and current Councilman John Notari.
The budget was voted down after former board vice-president Patricia Inaugurato publicly screamed out against the budget at an earlier meeting.
The budget discussions will question whether to spend $507,000 on armed security officers and other equipment upgrades for district schools in the wake of the Newtown school shooting.
Two screaming matches regarding the increased budget spending broke out at a March 25 Board of Education meeting. The budget was passed by the board, with Inaugurato voting no. During the chaotic budget public hearing a shouting match broke out between school board member Joseph Longo and frequent school critic Vincent Frantantoni about the need to have armed security offices at each district school.
Later, Inaugurato yelled to the audience, encouraging everyone to vote against the spending plan, after she tried to talk about her disappointment that the plan increased spending in ways with which she disagrees.
With an April election, Belleville is now one of the few school districts left in New Jersey that did not vote to shift its election to November. That change to November would preclude a public vote on the budget, officials said.