The Morris School District hopes for a return to “normal” operations in September.
But its next budget, scheduled for a virtual public hearing this Monday, April 26, 2021, purports to look a little farther past the pandemic… to 2040.
“Our goals are not merely to return to normalcy. We want to move forward in important ways,” to prepare students for a swiftly evolving, knowledge-based economy, Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast said in a video preview. “The 2021-22 budget signals a far-reaching step toward our vision.”
Video: Morris School District 2021-22 budget preview:
That long view includes a continuing emphasis on Pre-K. A state grant of almost $9 million will enable 630 kids, ages 3 and 4, to attend for free, Pendergrast said. Taxpayers will pay transportation costs.
The spending plan also calls for installation of interactive panels– deferred by the pandemic — in all elementary school classrooms, and continued small class sizes throughout the 10-school regional district, which employs about 1,000 people serving 5,700 students.
Pendergrast’s preview does not disclose the budget total, though he said it won’t exceed the state-imposed 2 percent budget cap that would trigger a referendum.
Local taxpayers shoulder 82 percent of the tab.
The owner of a Morristown home assessed at $354,790, the town average, will see an annual school tax decrease of $40.
In neighboring Morris Township, where the average home is assessed at $560,500, that homeowner will see his or her annual school tax increase by $108.
State and federal sources account for another 7 percent of revenue, and 5 percent (rounded) is from a budgeted reserve. Tuition from Morris Plains students attending Morristown High, and others who live outside the district comes to about 4 percent.
The budget’s $3.3 million in capital projects include modular classrooms for Frelinghuysen Middle School; lights and a new scoreboard, track and turf for Morristown High School; field improvements at the Alexander Hamilton Elementary School; and new windows and heating/air conditioning at the Woodland Elementary School.
Security vestibules are planned district-wide, at a cost of $630,000.
Girls flag football is being added this spring at the high school, and boys volleyball will follow next year.
Instruction accounts for 80 percent of district expenses. Facilities are another 11 percent (figures are rounded), administration is 5 percent, and 1.2 percent goes to the Unity Charter School.
PANDEMIC CHALLENGES, AND A TURBULENT BIRTH
“We are a large, multi-cultural and cosmopolitan community that has many diverse needs, across many different academic levels. Yet, we are one strong, healthy community. And this budget supports our entire district community, in all of its great complexity, in the most fiscally responsible manner,” Pendergrast said in his preview.
About $3 million from the current budget was “re-purposed” for pandemic needs.
Statewide, the district was among the few districts –about 10 percent– to offer five-day-per-week, in-person classes for elementary schools, according to the superintendent.
The high school and middle school have run on hybrid schedules, alternating between in-person and virtual learning.
On Monday, Pendergrast plans to present data suggesting academic performance in the lower grades has held up, despite school closures, quarantines and virtual classes.
Pandemic health precautions have included removal of desks for social distancing; purchases of masks, hand sanitizing stations and tents; and hiring of substitute teachers, bus drivers and nurses.
Some 2,000 Chromebooks were distributed to help students with virtual studies. The district also has partnered with local organizations to distribute 400,000 meals during the pandemic.
A district coronavirus information center has distributed 51 updates over 52 weeks, garnering half a million views, Pendergrast added.
COVID-19 is challenging the Morris School District as it marks its turbulent birth 50 years ago. A landmark 1971 court decision forged the district from Morristown and Morris Township schools, a merger that was “neither easy nor trouble-free,” Pendergrast reflected.
It stemmed from a “visionary premise that both students and communities grow, learn and benefit when there is racial balance and diversity,” and has endured thanks to “principled and courageous decisions in pursuit of a vision that our school district would act`as a great unifying social force,” he said
Asserting this work is far from complete, Pendergrast pledged to press ahead on equity inclusion and anti-racist policies to ensure every student feels valued.
“We aspire to be a community of communities, where each student is empowered to live a life of choice and opportunity, a life that matters,” he said. “This is the most valuable way we can honor the vision of our district founders.”
Monday’s virtual hearing starts at 7:30 pm. Register here to participate via Zoom.