Clifton Board of Education Passes its Budget with Support from Large Crowd
TLDR version: Students were honored for their hard work and deduction and the 2023-24 budget passed with a 4% increase, with wide support from those in attendance. The 4% increase translates to just under $10 a month for the average assessed home.
Thursday’s meeting of the Board of Education started with standing room only for the Board’s final budget presentation. Members of the Clifton Education Association (CEA), families of students receiving honors, and interested citizens filled the room.
Tiffany, the Clifton High School Student Union representative, updated the community on news from Clifton High School. She shared that last month, nearly 100 students and staff signed up for the Blood Drive, resulting in enough blood to potentially save 200 lives. The National Honor Society induction ceremony last week and 81 students were welcomed, including those who had been inducted last year as juniors. The Mustang Band’s spring concert, Opus, is on Wednesday, May 17 at 7 pm at CHS.
April CHS Students of the Month included Freshman Nathaly Romero Vera, Sophomore Arman Rasouli, Junior Miha Garcia, and Senior Emmanuel West. As he does at each of these presentations, President Jim Smith commented that this was one of his favorite parts of Board of Education business - getting to celebrate the talent in our district.
PBSIS Coordinator Paula Raygoza talked about the importance of highlighting student voices. “Students’ views and opinions are strongly considered,” she said, in speaking of how decisions about instruction are made. The goal is to help students become active and engaged learners, developing leadership skills that will help them to actively direct their own education. Raygoza shared a video presentation from the School 5 Safety Patrol PBSIS Students. In January, these students noted a need for a peer-to-peer intervention with their fourth-grade peers to help them prepare for their turn at safety patrol next year. These students worked collaboratively, on their own time, and presented their Google slides to the fourth grade. The fifth graders involved were all awarded certificates and received a room full of applause.
Imagine Math presentation
Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction Janina Kusielewicz introduced Dan Savarese from Imagine Math and Erin Zmuda, the K-8 Math Supervisor. In January, the Imagine Learning team came to Clifton to film what was happening in our district with their software. The videos, which were shot with the help of CHS students in the CAST program, are being shared across the country. School #3, School #13, and Christopher Columbus Middle School were highlighted in these success story videos. Imagine Math presents math skills in video game format and adjusts the questions in response to student performance. Teachers can track each student’s progress and set goals for them in the program.
Imagine Robotify is another program, this one aimed at teaching coding to children. Even the young third graders are starting to learn coding with engaging, gameified lessons. Data from their work lets teachers know what they’ve learned and what they need help with, and allows them to set future goals for each student. “Every student has a chance to see if coding is for them,” said School 13 teacher Charles Meunier.
Business Administrator Michael Ucci presented the 2023-24 Final Budget at this Public Hearing, the final step before the Board votes. The recommended 3% tax levy increase represents just over $4 million extra dollars. For the first time in many years, Clifton will be fully funded with a State aid increase of 33.59% or $22,744,347.
Ucci explained that a 21.56% increase in charter school tuitions accounts for nearly $2,500,000 of the budget. Significant district-wide staffing increases are another large chunk of the budget. He shared a long list of the various positions being budgeted for, district-wide, including ELL (English Language Learner) teachers, new classroom teachers, and promoting some current paraprofessionals to full-time employees with benefits. The total school budget is $294,567,517.
The proposal calls for a 2% increase plus an additional and allowed 1%. Last year there was a 2% increase but the three years prior, the Board of Education didn’t raise taxes at all. That, coupled with many years of underfunding from the state, led to a need to raise taxes now.
Ucci explained that even with a 3% increase, the “real feel” tax increase would only be 1.44% because last year we paid two interest payments on the referendum and we won’t have to do that again. For the average home, this would mean an annual increase of $71.32 or $5.94 a month.
Property taxes paid to the city are divided into three “slices” - the city, the county, and the school district. The school district is receiving a smaller slice of the tax pie than it did last year (47.4% vs 46.6%) and is significantly less than the state average of 52.7%. The school district’s percentage of the tax bill is smaller than in most municipalities. The board has been looking out for the Cifton taxpayers by consistently working to keep taxes down.
Commissioner Fahim Abedrabbo emphasized the need for a tax increase now because years of a zero percent increase left the district in need and now we need to pay up. Mr. Ucci said that the district could go as high as an 8% increase with allowable caps if they wanted to. Abedrabbo said that the state aid we’re receiving this year is really just owed money after years of being underfunded. “How much are we leaving on the table by not going to 4%?” he asked.
Commissioner Alan Paris asked about security in our schools. At 3%, the security positions created would be primarily for the elementary schools but not every building would get a security person. Dr. Robertozzi said the goal was never to do this all at once but instead, to phase it in over a few years. Robertozzi said that a 4% increase would allow for security personnel in every school. The middle and high schools already have security personnel.
Commissioner Judy Bassford asked about the Tax Levy Debt Service and what it would look like with a 4% increase. Dr. Robertozzi said that $9.64 a month was the expected tax increase on the average assessed home with a 4% increase.
Lori Lalama, CEA president was the first of several educators to address the Board. “I’m loving what I’m hearing,” she started. “4% is what we’d love to see,” she said. “We don’t want to leave money on the table. This isn’t poker.” She spoke of how public education provides an opportunity for all children, regardless of background or economics, to have an excellent education. She mentioned the benefit to property value when our school system is strong and our children are well-educated.
Other educators also spoke, imploring the Board to amend the proposal to a 4% increase in order to pay for the additional support they need for their students. Donna Popwich, a former educator, was also supportive of the increase. “I have no problem with a tax increase because I can see it’s being used to improve the school system,” she said. “We’re not just keeping the status quo; we’re making it better.”
Following Public Recognition, Commissioner Bassford made a motion to amend the resolution to indicate a 4% tax increase. After the motion to amend passed by unanimous vote, the actual vote to adopt the budget also passed with unanimous support from all board commissioners in attendance. Commissioner Feras Awwad was not present.
Dr. Robertozzi proudly announced that for the fourth year in a row, Clifton has been recognized for having one of the best music programs in the country. “We are never going to cut the arts,” he said. Clifton is one of 50 districts in New Jersey (there are 600 in total) that received this award. Nationwide, 800 districts received this recognition.
Alias Ragsdale, a junior at Clifton High School, has been named the Clifton Boys and Girls Club Youth of the Year. This recognition comes with a $3,000 scholarship and he is now entered in the state-level competition where he could win additional scholarships.
Robertozzi shared a referendum report: the WWMS Athletic Complex is now open for student use! “This was one of the most visible projects of the referendum and it’s stunningly beautiful,” he said. The public is invited to come see the new field on Wednesday, May 17th at 3:30 pm for an official opening and ribbon cutting.
The Interact Club is hosting a Spring Closet Clean-Up. Bring your clothing, bags, shoes, and toys to Clifton High School. During school hours, drop-off is in the media center or the main office. The public can drop off at CHS on May 13 between 9-12 pm in a bin outside of the school.
The Board of Education next meets on Thursday, May 25 at 7 pm. Meetings are held at 745 Clifton Avenue. The entrance is in the back of the building, off of the main parking lot, and the meeting room is downstairs.