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NJ School Groups Come to Trenton Looking for Answers

Under its new chairman, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, the Senate education committee invited more than a dozen groups to testify, from large teacher unions to a small special education coalition.

New Jersey’s top education advocates came to the Statehouse, Feb. 1 to ask for support, financial and otherwise, as Gov. Chris Christie warned of a still-wider state budget gap ahead.

Under its new chairman, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, the Senate education committee invited more than a dozen groups to testify, from large teacher unions to a small special education coalition.

Topic A: the state’s fiscal crisis and what’s next for public schools, an expected target in Christie’s plans to cut state spending.

“Knowing that the dark clouds of a perfect fiscal storm are fast approaching, many school board members are already losing sleep,” said Barbara Horl, lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

All eyes were on representatives of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s powerful teachers union and frequent butt of Christie’s criticisms of Trenton special interest groups.

But NJEA vice president Wendell Steinhauer did not engage the governor in his testimony, as he gave a long list of New Jersey’s achievements in its public schools. He asked the Legislature to maintain full funding of education.

“The state’s number one educational priority must be fully supporting the school funding formula,” Steinhauer said.

Others were more resigned to the likelihood of cuts, with one lobbyist pleading only for ample warning.

“Is yesterday soon enough?” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a suburban school group. “This is a need-to-know situation, not a want-to-know.”

It wasn’t just budget worries, with concerns raised on topics ranging from state testing to national standards.

Schools may soon learn at least part of their budget fate. In an afternoon press conference, Christie said he would present his long-awaited plan for closing this year’s shortfall by the end of the week.

Budget Shortfall Could Hit $11 Billion for 2011

Providing no details of his intentions, Christie put this year’s budget shortfall at about $2 billion. A still-wider gap comes in next year’s budget, starting July 1, with estimates as high as $11 billion.

Christie again said he’d rule out higher gas taxes and increased tolls to close the gaps. The new governor has already said he would not raise other state taxes for this or next year’s budget. (Christie is scheduled to present his fiscal 2011 budget plan on March 16.)

Across the Statehouse complex, Ruiz said the grim budget backdrop dominates the challenges and issues facing New Jersey’s nearly 600 school districts.

The Newark senator said she would work as the committee’s chairman to at least minimize any new mandates on schools in the months ahead. Ruiz succeeds state Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, in leading the influential panel.

But Ruiz said it is a precarious time, and districts must know they will need to adapt and sacrifice as well.

“I am encouraged that everyone understands what is at stake, and they’re not coming in saying, ‘We need more, we need more,’ ” Ruiz said. “They understand that there is going to be need for change.”

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