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NJ's Smallest School Districts Share Big Worries About Christie's Budget

Schools face uncertain futures as proposals for shared services and consolidations haunt district supers.

They are a big part of New Jersey's notorious abundance of more than 500 separate school districts, the scores of tiny districts of a few hundred students in just a single school or two.

These days, many of them feeling a bit like an endangered species, the fodder for regionalization talk and almost universally tight finances in the lead up to another budget year, starting with Gov. Chris Christie's budget presentation today.

Two years after severe cuts statewide, the state's smallest districts have seen their staffs whittled to a minimum, their enrollments in flux, and their fates uncertain as proposals for shared services and even consolidations are on the move.

Alice Krihak wonders where the next cuts could come out of her one-school district in Winfield, in Union County, where she serves as superintendent, principal and special services director.

"You sit here as a small district like ourselves, and you are looking at every single penny you can," she said.

Krihak is part of a group of administrators from the state's smallest districts who gather regularly to discuss their shared concerns. As some of them met on Friday at the Trenton offices of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, the depth of their challenges were real as they considered what Christie's next budget could mean and how they will do more with less.

They have been told that their state aid could be held even next year, good news compared with two years ago when cuts were severe. But with Christie laying out the details today, for some there could be reductions in specific aid categories tied to enrollment, an ominous sign for those where the numbers have dropped.

In Andover Regional in Sussex County, the two-school district is for the first time considering a move to take outside students through the state's inter-district choice program.

"It's something we weren't even talking about last year, but due to projected decrease in enrollment and these kinds of costs, we now have to," said Bernard Baggs, the district superintendent.

Baggs said the state's allowable increase of 2 percent in property taxes is already budgeted for next year, just paying for the status quo.

But any cuts in state aid would set them back, he said, a real possibility as Andover Regional is among 19 districts in Sussex receiving the so-called adjustment aid that could be on the block. More than half of Andover's overall aid of $2.4 million is in adjustment aid, which makes up for declining enrollment.

"We'd like to keep what we have, but we do know there will be cuts somewhere," he said. "We don't have the levels [of staffing and students] that others might have, but we still must provide the services."

"In the next two or three years, there will be some very difficult decisions to make," he said.

Each one of the district's represented Friday said their school boards had decided to move to November elections, the chief reason being the uncertainty of the budgets otherwise. Under the new law, districts that move to November no longer must post their base budgets for public vote. As of Friday, more than 400 districts have made the switch, according to the state's school boards association.

"The decision to go to November wasn't a slam dunk for us,' said Janie Edmonds, superintendent of the Mendham Borough's two schools. "They talked and talked about their worries of disenfranchising people. But in the end it was based on protecting children and education for the children who go to the schools."

With its one school, Winfield in Union County entered into a school choice agreement last year and attracted 13 students, mostly from neighboring Roselle. That amounted to an extra $15,000 per child.

"That's a lot of money for us," said Krihak, the superintendent.

It's not as if the smallest districts are reluctant to share services. The superintendents described a slew of consortiums and councils intended to allocate ideas and talent. But for all of them, costs for staffing and benefits -- especially insurance -- only continue to rise, as do the needs of students and the demands of their politicians.

The latest is the statewide push for revamping teacher evaluation, an idea that few argue against until they see the bill for all the training of teachers and equipment required.

This same group of superintendents on Friday also heard a sales pitch for a high-tech evaluation system, complete with video cameras and online databases. It could come to $10,000 a school just to start.

"Maybe we can't do it with all the bells and whistles," Krihak said of the program that is being used in more than 250 schools statewide next year. "But if it's something required, we'll do what we have to do."

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