SPARTA — The Board of Education has approved a $68.5 million budget that will raise the school portion of residents' taxes for the 2020-21 school year by 2.67%.


The budget, which the board voted 8-1 to approve during a remotely held meeting Wednesday, was amended just prior to the vote to include the appropriation of an additional $200,000 for a proposed new playground at the Mohawk Avenue School, which the district's third-graders attend.


The approved budget represents about a $500,000 reduction from last year's budgeted amount but will nonetheless raise the local tax levy by $545,000 over last year's amount, in part to make up for another state aid cut of at least $166,000 heading into the new school year as well as to pay for other programs and expenses.


Among the included items are the addition of at least two new kindergarten aides at the Alpine Elementary School, which Superintendent Michael Rossi said could be increased to as many as six if needed to assist kindergartners with the wearing of face masks, gloves or other personal protective equipment that public health authorities could mandate prior to the reopening of schools in September as the coronavirus emergency winds down.


Other plans call for purchasing district-wide security cameras, science materials, and a utility truck as well as leasing an additional school bus, and offering occupational and behavioral therapy services to the general student population. The district also will increase a special education teacher from half-time to full-time and add an instructional interventionist at the Helen Morgan School; add a health teacher at Sparta Middle School; and add a nurse and interscholastic sports in gymnastics and boys' volleyball and replace the auditorium sound system at Sparta High School.


For the average township home currently assessed at $369,900, property taxes will increase by an estimated $149, according to Business Administrator Pamela Hinman.


The overall tax increase calls for raising an additional $388,000 in so-called “banked cap” money in excess of the state's 2% cap on tax levy increases. The term "banked cap" refers to money the district could have taxed in the prior three years but didn't because it stayed under the cap.


Immediately prior to holding Wednesday's budget hearing, the board swore in its newest member in the person of Mount Olive Schools Superintendent Robert Zywicki, a Sparta resident who was appointed temporarily to the seat left vacant by the April resignation of Karen Scott and who could choose to run in the fall for the remainder of her term, which expires at the end of 2021.


Zywicki wasted no time wading into his first bit of controversy as he questioned Rossi about why architect Greg Somjen — who informed the board Wednesday night that, because of drainage issues, the proposed Mohawk Avenue School playground could end up costing more than the estimated $200,000 — was not consulted on the matter months earlier so the board could better prepare.


"Budgeting usually begins in November," Zywicki said. "I've never seen a quote come through on the day of a public hearing for a capital project that was discussed and meetings were held on last fall. I would think the architect would have been engaged months ahead of time."


Rossi acknowledged that the drainage issue came as a surprise to him as well but said he was hopeful the district would be able to get the playground done in the coming year.


Board member Kate Matteson, however, ripped the administration over what she characterized as shoddy planning, both on the playground issue and in how the budget itself was presented. She also accused school officials of giving priority to last year's $3 million construction of a multi-purpose turf field at the high school at the expense of the district's elementary school students, whom she suggested were being given short shrift by comparison.


Board members Kylen Anderson and Jason Ventresca disputed that, saying the turf field took five years of planning that included several false starts along the way. "I don't think it's fair to say that people were more concerned about the turf field than the playground,“ Anderson said.


Matteson, however, noted that several of the district's schools sit smack in the middle of heavily regulated wetlands and said school officials should have factored this into their planning. "It's New Jersey. You have to do your homework. ... The third-grade playground was just as important as the turf field and should have been taken just as seriously. It's a real fail," she said.


Matteson also faulted the school administration for not having a PowerPoint or other presentation on the budget available and said she would be voting against it for this reason. The other eight members all voted in favor of the budget’s adoption.


Prior to the final vote on the budget, Board Vice President Jennifer Grana made a motion to appropriate the additional $200,000 for the playground, a motion that board member Kurt Morris opposed but that the others all supported.


Eric Obernauer can also be contacted on Twitter: @EricObernNJH or by phone at 973-383-1213.