Freehold: Districts try to put brakes on spending

FROZEN: Schools chiefs must veto the nonessential

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By Joshua Riley and Jennifer Bradshaw

As of 4 p.m. today, the Freehold Township School District’s budget will be frozen.

All purchase orders — typically filed electronically for the business administrator’s review — now have to be approved by Superintendent William J. Setaro. He will now ask the budget managers to justify the requested purchase.

The new practice is the district’s way of answering the state’s call to freeze non-essential spending for the rest of the school year during the tough national economic climate.

But defining nonessential spending may be difficult for districts, which have complete control over reducing costs.

“What’s essential in the eyes of the state is not always what’s essential in the eyes of parents,” said Middletown schools’ business administrator Bill Doering.

State Education department spokesman Rich Vespucci defined “nonessential” as any expenditures outside of instruction or contracted payments.

Every school district has discretionary spending that can be cut during this “unprecedented hard time,” Vespucci said. The school board should meet the questions and concerns of the public on these spending cuts and how they are to be applied, he said.

At Freehold Township schools, not every item will be on the chopping block. A class trip already booked but not paid for, for example, will still be allowed, Setaro said. He also hopes to go forward with air conditioning projects at the Clifton T. Barkalow Middle School and the Joseph J. Catena Elementary School.

“We’ll certainly be reviewing to see if anything can be cut, (but) we feel that anything we do is essential,” Freehold Regional High School District spokeswoman Ilse Whisner said.

Any cuts would be up to the district’s board of education, she said.

In Middletown, Doering will review the district’s budget along with Superintendent Karen Bilbao for possible areas of a spending freeze.

Some districts, however, had already scaled back their spending.

Toms River Regional School District Superintendent Michael Ritacco said gasoline prices had caused the district to tighten spending earlier this school year. The district plans to cut back by postponing some equipment purchases, copier machines for example, that were recommended but not immediately necessary, Ritacco said.

“We tried to limit our spending to absolute necessity,” he said. “This year’s budget process is going to be extremely difficult.”

In Holmdel, schools have already been implementing spending freezes in certain areas of the budget, such as general supplies, business administrator Michael Petrizzo said.

While the Jan. 16 letter from the state Education Commissioner Lucille E. Davy does not come as a surprise to the district, it is a “telling sign” of the times, he said.

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Staff writer Kim Predham contributed to this article.

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