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Newark Super Faces Familiar 21st Century Challenge: Do More With Less

Even with a nearly $1B budget, Anderson has to cut money for district schools, find more funds for city's charters.

At the same time that she’s trying to remake New Jersey’s largest school district, Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson has a bit of a budget bind on her hands.

Anderson has outlined a nearly $1 billion budget for next year that could call for more than $56 million in cuts to a majority of district schools. Meanwhile, according to a presentation made to the local board, she's being forced to increase funds to charter schools due to their rising enrollments.

Several of the schools Anderson is seeking to reconfigure as "renewal schools" could see cuts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, according to the presentation last week.

And as the state-appointed superintendent, Anderson has incurred the wrath -- or at least the displeasure -- of the local board, which feels slighted by what it calls the scanty information she's shared about how she’ll close the apparent budget gap.

The board last week rejected the budget unanimously, although the vote carries virtually no legal weight in the state-run district.

“There was not full disclosure about the budget, and there still hasn’t been,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the board’s president. “There are a lot of unanswered questions as to what has contributed to the deficit and what will happen next year.”

“I know we are technically an advisory board,” she said, “but we still expect we have a chance to weigh and offer recommendations.”

The debate over the budget comes at a time when Anderson is trying to put her reforms in place and Gov. Chris Christie is seeking to sell the merits of the state’s management of low-performing schools with last week’s announcement of a planned takeover of the Camden’s district.

Newark is also the district that is the beneficiary of the $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, not technically money for the operating budget but nonetheless paying for some key provisions in the district’s new teacher contract.

Anderson and her administration have not elaborated on how the cuts will be made or where other revenues, such as federal aid, could help close the gaps. She said in an email that she expects further budget adjustments in the end will bring more resources to her neediest schools. Officials have said that other changes are required to bring needed efficiencies to the district’s operations.

"These are surgical cuts that took time to propose and will continue to evolve until July 1,” Anderson’s statement read. “Per-pupil spending is essentially flat for schools despite tough fiscal times.

“With [federal] Title I and other earmarked grants,” she said, “we will dramatically increase extended time for students and staff as well as social and emotional supports, thanks to our breakthrough contract and better budgeting -- and it will be concentrated in places like Renew Schools."

Renee Harper, the district’s communication director, also sought to dispel the board’s objections: "This administration has gone above and beyond in terms of the quality and content of information provided about the budget -- and we understand why the political season has masked that fact."

Still, with the final budget due to the state next week, barring an extension, the presentation to the board last week revealed some pretty stark figures.

Of the $56 million in cuts, a third are to individual schools in their annual budgets for staffing and programs.

Some cuts are as high as 10 percent -- or even 20 percent at West Side High School, one of those slated to be a renewal school next year. West Side High stands to lose close to $3 million.

Meanwhile, Anderson plans to reduce administrative staffing, including in the central office, by more than 120 positions.

The pressure is coming from all sides. For example, an additional $33 million has to be found for Newark's charter schools, where an additional 2,200 students are expected to be enrolled next year -- nudging the total above 10,000. In all, $181 million of the district’s budget – or close to 20 percent -- goes to charters.

What’s more, state aid to the district is flat, according to Christie's proposed 2014 budget, while costs rise with the new teachers contract, insurance, and other programs.

The situation in Newark is sure to cause some ripples in the Legislature’s upcoming budget deliberations, with the state Assembly’s budget committee starting hearings next week, specifically on state aid to schools.

The committee is slated to come to Newark on Tuesday, and advocacy groups are already pulling together a protest of the situation, which they see as reflective of what they call the larger funding shortfalls in the state’s urban schools.

The Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation, put out a press release yesterday criticizing the circumstances in the city.

"The State proposed budget for the Newark school district is a disaster for students," said David Sciarra, the law center’s executive director. "It is incumbent upon [state Education Commissioner Chris] Cerf, as the state official responsible for the operation of Newark schools, to fully explain the reasons for this budget gap, and what the State will do to ensure adequate resources for all Newark students, and not just those in selective charter schools." When contacted yesterday, Cerf declined to comment.

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