With little discussion, the Morris School District board on Monday unanimously approved a $132 million budget for 2021-22 that does not exceed the state 2 percent cap.
Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast also presented data comparing academic performance of elementary school pupils before and during the pandemic, and outlined plans to help students falling behind because of socio-economic factors.
“There’s no way they’re going to learn at a high level if they don’t have food,” he said.
Citing I-Ready tests that provide fall-, winter- and spring benchmarks in reading and math, Pendergrast said district K-5 students outperformed national averages this winter in reading. The pandemic numbers even outpaced national norms from 2018-19, a “normal” winter.
But math performance in those grades has lagged slightly, compared with the pre-COVID winter of 2019-20. Pendergrast suggested that may reflect the district’s new go-slow approach, which attempts to reinforce math concepts throughout the year.
On the plus side, I-Ready data indicate improvement from fall to winter in math as well as reading, the superintendent said. He admitted puzzlement, however, over significantly superior math achievement by K-3 students who opted for all-virtual instruction over in-person classes.
No academic statistics were shared for students in upper grades.
District data for 3rd-, 4th- and 5th graders struggling in math revealed that 66 percent don’t speak English at home. Sixty percent participate in free- or reduced-price lunch programs. Forty-two percent have disabilities requiring specialized educational programs. Thirty-seven percent arrived in the district since kindergarten. And 18 percent have had 10 or more absences.
Stable homes and food security are essential for learning, Pendergrast said. About a third of the district’s 5,700 students are from economically disadvantaged families; the schools have provided 400,000 meals during the pandemic. More work remains, Pendergrast said.
“We have to talk to these families, we have to talk to these kids, we have to find out. That’s a responsive school system, right? We have to respond to the data, find out more, so we can meet the kids’ needs,” said the superintendent, who reiterated the district’s commitment to diversity and inclusion
Helping every student reach his or her potential, he said, is crucial to forging the “community of communities” envisioned by the district’s founders a half century ago, when a court ordered the merger of Morristown and Morris Township schools.
Monday’s two-hour virtual meeting was advertised as a public hearing on the budget, though no caller posed questions about the spending plan.
Morristown residents will see their share of the regional tax burden decrease a bit, while school taxes will rise in Morris Township.
An owner of a Morristown home assessed at $354,790, the town average, will see an annual school taxes decrease by $40. In the Township, where the average home is assessed at $560,500, that homeowner will see his or her annual school tab increase by $108.
Morristown High School will add girls flag football and boys volleyball, along with a new scoreboard, track and turf, and lighting for the athletic field, Pendergrast noted in a video budget preview released last week.
The budget also earmarks money for modular classrooms at the Frelinghuysen Middle School, a partial roof replacement at the Alexander Hamilton Elementary School, and replacement of the parking lot at the Lafayette Learning Center.
“We’re not cutting programs. We’re maintaining small class sizes, investing in technology, making sure our students have activities. You know, we’re not cutting sports programs we’re adding sports programs… and we’re continuing to significantly expand Pre-K,” Pendergrast said on Monday.
The district came in at the state cap despite emergency costs of the pandemic, said board member Linda Murphy, chair of the finance committee.
“We spent millions of dollars in COVID-related expenses that were unplanned expenses in this fiscal year 2020-2021, and I’m happy to report that the expenditures have been covered now, either through grants or reallocation of line item expenditures from other places,” Murphy said.
“In January, February, we were pretty concerned about where we were. But as it turns out, we’ve been able to sustain our finances, and meet the needs” of the district.
VACCINES AND VICTORIES
Within days, 85 percent of the district’s teachers will be fully vaccinated — meaning they are two weeks beyond their second COVID-19 shot, Pendergrast said.
The number of positive cases district-wide has fallen over the last 10 days, he added, expressing hopes of shifting grades 6-12 from hybrid- to full in-person schedules in this marking period.
Students have scored some victories, despite the coronavirus.
Pendergrast congratulated Morristown High’s math team, Morris County champs for a third straight year, and the 8-0 girls swim team, led by Swimmer of the Year Molly Webber.
Owen Kelly and Milind Bangalore ranked in the top 200 in the U.S. Chemistry Olympiad, and Sarah Carroll from the middle school won the Morris County Spelling Bee.
The board tabled a vote to revise the district’s grading policy. Several members said they wanted more time to study the measure.