Gov. Chris Christie came to the heart of school-proud suburbia today to pitch his austerity plan for public education—which may include even steeper cuts ahead.
A week ago, Christie a week ago announced $475 million in state aid to schools would be frozen in districts with enough surpluses to cover the losses, the first major midyear cut of state school aid in memory.
In a hastily arranged roundtable in a Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, middle school, Christie said state aid reductions could extend into next year, too, hinting at as much as a 15 percent cut.
“We’re broke, and there’s no other way to put it,” he told the small gathering in the school’s library.
“And to put in context, this was $2.2 million for this year, while the deficit for fiscal year 2011 in a $29 billion budget is $11 billion,” he said. “So there are more hard choices to come, a lot more hard choices to come”
Christie's announcement did not go over well, even in this Republican-leaning town in Union County, New Jersey. Berkeley Heights was among the 570 districts hit by Christie’s freeze, losing $701,000 in aid, its entire balance for the rest of the school year.
In a budget of $43 million, district officials said they have that much money in extra surplus for this year, thanks in part to remaining interest from completed building projects.
But officials told Christie directly that the money by law was earmarked for local taxpayers next year, a cushion the district will now not be able to afford.
“I am going to disagree with you to the impact of a few hundred thousand dollars [withheld],” said Judith Rattner, superintendent of the 2,800-student district. “It will not impact this year, but it will be a significant impact on this community in the next year.”
Berkeley Heights is a cautionary example as to how the surpluses can affect spending and taxes, the superintendent said afterward.
For instance, her district this year was able to keep its tax increase to 1 percent, thanks to $1.6 million in surplus carried over from the previous year. The new freeze now reduces the current surplus to $300,000, Rattner continued, likely forcing the next property taxes to rise to the 4 percent maximum to meet rising costs.
She said class sizes will be bigger, extracurricular programs trimmed, and the district’s recent addition of an elementary school guidance counselor will be revisited.
“You have to realize $700,000 is 12 to 14 staff members,” she said. “Everything is back on the table now.”
Sitting next to her, Columbia Middle School principal Frank Geiger told Christie that the surpluses in the district “are because of caution, not excessive taxation.” Geiger asked Christie if he was penalizing the wrong people.
“Recognizing there are districts that are fiscally conservative and at the same time providing quality education, how do go about recognizing districts doing a wonderful job while finding the leaks and hemorrhaging that are causing these budget issues?” he asked the governor.
In the exchange, Christie and his education chief, acting Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, didn’t much back off. They remained especially tough on the big state unions that have organized against them, led by the New Jersey Education Association.
With the president of the NJEA local at the table, Christie chided the union’s statewide leadership for its multi-million-dollar campaigns against him, including a recent run of radio advertisements.
"The NJEA loves spending their teachers’ dues criticizing me,” he said. ‘They spent $3 million trying to make sure I didn’t win the election, and see how successful that was. And they will put more lies and distortions on the radio.”
“They have to stop playing politics and get real,” Christie said. “My response to them is, ‘Have at it, have at it.’”
He cited a new contract agreed to in Marlboro, New Jersey, schools where he said teachers received raises averaging 4.5 percent in each of five years. “With no contribution to health care,” he said.
“How can we continue this?” Christie said.