Brick Township Board of Education/Schools (Photo: Daniel Nee)
Brick Township Board of Education/Schools (Photo: Daniel Nee)

The Brick Township Board of Education, after hours of debate over taxation, education funding, facilities improvements, and the ability of Brick residents to bear a tax hike, voted down a tentative school budget that would increase expenditures by $7.1 million and hike taxes by $5.7 million.

“I want to emphasize the word ‘tentative’ budget,” said Interim Superintendent Thomas Gialanella, who occasionally engaged in back-and-forth exchanges with residents angry over the proposed tax increase.

Gialanella, a Brick resident and former Jackson Township schools superintendent, said past boards of education in town should have raised taxes to the full 2 percent allowed under state law. Former board members, however, argued they negotiated contracts that were tax-neutral, and performed millions of dollars in capital improvements without raising taxes to the maximum amount allowed by law.

Ultimately, a majority of board members – including those who ran on the same ticket in November 2015 – voted down the tentative budget. Except for board members George White and John Barton, all members of the seven-person school board voted against adopting the spending plan.

A special meeting has been set for Monday, March 21 to hammer out the final budget which will be introduced to Brick taxpayers.

Karyn Cusanelli, a member of the board who did not run with the current majority, questioned budgetary items in the wake of confirmation by Business Administrator Jim Edwards that last year’s pay increase for teachers was tax neutral – offset by give-backs in the teachers’ health benefits contributions. Cusanelli said newly-created administrator positions and funds tacked onto ambiguously-named line item accounts, including $535,000 in an account known as “Various,” is cause for concern.

“When you’re looking to beat the taxpayer for another $6 million, when I see additional high salaries, when I see not a lot of money in the things that we say are important, I get concerned,” said Cusanelli. “I’m getting the impression that everybody is blaming the teachers for this budget, they made a sacrifice to changes to their healthcare and their benefits, and it was a compromise that was very fair. For the duration of the contract, that was all taken into consideration.”

Board member Victoria Pakala, who ran as part of the “Clean Slate” ticket that won a majority on the board this year, said previous boards should not have kept tax increases to a minimum, and should have spent more money to improve facilities.

Gialanella said previously, by not imposing tax hikes to the 2 percent maximum each year over the past several years, did not “take advantage” of the law and said in the future, boards should increase taxes to the top of the cap level to avoid “losing ground.”

Still, board members and Gialanella did not go into detail about where the funding from the $7.1 million budget increase would go, with Gialenella saying only that most of it would go toward teacher salaries. Edwards, however, contradicted that at multiple points in the meeting by saying pay increases granted to teachers under their current contract would be offset by health insurance give-backs.

At times, the meeting got personal, with resident Vic Fanelli taking aim at Gialanella over advocating for tax increases while he earns an equivalent $177,000 annual salary while collecting a pension from his previous position in Jackson. The tone was reverberated by former board member Larry Reid, who opposed the tax increase.

“I find it a little disingenuous for someone who’s collecting both a pension and a salary as an interim superintendent to say that we should raise the budget 2 percent every year,” Reid, a Normandy Drive resident, said.

“Not only are the taxpayers in Brick looking for no increase in the school budget, they’re looking for a decrease in the school budget,” said resident Vic Fanelli. “The people I talk to are looking for a decrease in the school budget because we have the highest taxes in the country.”

Another resident, Victor Finamore, said after Brick Shorebeat posted a story on the tax increase, he received over 100 phone calls from residents opposing the budget.

“If this budget goes through, they’re selling their homes,” Finamore said.

Gialanella said before the meeting, he was already in contact with the Ocean County Executive Superintendent of Schools to discuss a defeated budget proposal. A special meeting to come to a budget compromise has been scheduled for Monday, March 21 at 6 p.m. in the administration building.

“His instructions were that the meeting not adjourn until we have a tentative budget,” Gialanella said.