Board ready to tackle budget with cautious optimism

Sunday Times Newspapers

TRENTON — It’s too early to declare economic optimism, but Trenton Public Schools Board of Education President Cristine Howe said the approaching annual budget process could be the beginning of long-needed financial stability.

“We’re hopeful that the situation is more stable,” Howe said. “But we’re being careful and taking a pessimistic view. We have to. We want to make sure we don’t budget for things we can’t afford.”

Howe, a longtime board member who in January was named president, said that district business manager Gail Farrell is expected to offer a first look at the 2013-14 budget when the board meets March 25. Indicators of progress include an anticipated increase in the general fund balance of more than $50,000, although that, too, brings measured relief.

“The fund balance is improving,” Howe said. “But the system and rules the state uses for deciding how much money to return to local districts are complex. We’re not assuming that we will have even the same amount of money, and we won’t budget for an increase.”

Howe and board members realize Trenton remains in “a tight situation,” and the priority is to not be forced into emergency cost-cutting or revenue-producing measures. Last year the district approved a limited school of choice option for up to 60, mostly-elementary school students.

In 2011 general education bus service was nearly eliminated until an unexpected tax revenue check kept the fleet in operation. That service was outsourced to a private supplier for the 2012-13 academic year.

The absence of anticipating such decisions could be viewed as an improvement over recent years, but Howe remained cautious.

“Things seem to be going pretty smooth at the moment,” Howe said, “remarkably well, considering our circumstances. We just have to keep our fingers crossed.”

Stability does not mean a change from practices put into place in recent years, Howe said. The general fund increase — if realized — results from a number of cost-cutting and efficiency measures throughout the district, and Howe said those should continue as much as possible.

“The prudent thing to do is have a lean budget,” Howe said. “If the revenue picture turns out better than anticipated, it’s easier to add something back.”

(James Mitchell can be reached at