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Forced Spending Cuts in D.C. Starting to Be Felt by NJ Schools

Sequestration means state faces loss of $41 million in education aid.

The automatic spending cuts that rocked Washington, D.C., this spring will soon start hitting New Jersey public schools, with an estimated $41 million being cut from federal aid to the state’s schools for low-income and special-needs children.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday addressed the looming cuts from the so-called sequestration in his testimony before the state Senate’s budget committee on Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget.

In wide-ranging hearing that delved into an array of topics, financial and otherwise, Cerf said the state would try to buffer some of the federal cutbacks in the coming year with funds carried over from previous years.

The cuts would amount to about 5 percent of the $833 million that New Jersey schools receive in aid from the federal government.

Cerf did not hide the fact that the lower aid will hurt the state’s schools.

“The sequestration is going to cause real pain to those in New Jersey,” Cerf said near the close of the three-hour hearing. “We can see our way to surviving next year through using some (leftover) funds, but to the extent the federal crisis is not resolved, there will continue to be real pressure financially.”

State education officials would not release many details of the cuts and said they would be alerting districts in the next week. But in a recent breakdown of money going to districts for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the state’s data showed large districts will be hit especially hard in just that account.

For example, Elizabeth is slated to lose more than $810,000 in federal IDEA aid, with Paterson losing more than $780,000. It’s not just urban districts that would be affected, as Edison, Hamilton and Toms River would each see losses of more than $200,000.

The IDEA funding represents more than one-third of federal funding to schools, with the other large piece coming in Title I funds for low-income students. But federal funds cut across a wide swath of programs, from the state’s planned school turnaround efforts and its new Regional Achievement Centers to professional development and technology grants.

While the federal picture doesn’t look bright, Cerf and legislators yesterday hinted that there could be some slight relief coming on another front.

Christie has maintained that his proposed $12.4 billion state-aid package to schools, representing a 1 percent aid increase from this year, is the largest ever in state history and stressed that no district would see a cut in aid next year.

But a big bump in a little-known assessment to districts for state school-construction grants has left approximately 270 districts slated to get less state money next year overall.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said early in the hearing that negotiations were already under way with the administration to pull back on that assessment, and Cerf did not offer much resistance to the idea.

“We’ve had discussions with the treasurer, it’s for about $13 million that would take (the increase) out and bring everyone back to being at least flat-funded,” Sarlo said. “I’m going to fight real hard for that.”

“If we would be willing to work that out with Treasury,” Sarlo asked Cerf, “would your department be opposed to that?”

Cerf responded: “I am sure that will be an important part of negotiations, and whatever comes out of that, we will (follow) fully and faithfully.”

Sarlo added, drawing some smiles from the room: “Good answer.”

Overall, it was a pretty amicable hearing, with Sarlo and others from both the Democratic and Republican sides praising Cerf for his work and his accessibility to the Legislature.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some point of tensions. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairwoman of the Senate’s education committee, continued to press Cerf about reductions the administration has proposed in the extra funding that the state provides for at-risk students.

Cerf has maintained that the extra funding is higher than most other states, but Ruiz said that ignores the financial straits for districts that have come to depend on the funding to provide services they feel are needed.

“Whether you think it is inflated or not, it is what these districts have operated on and (the administration’s proposal) creates a pressure point to the reality they face today,” Ruiz said, citing her home district of Newark, which is facing a budget deficit of more than $50 million.

Cerf countered that there are other pressures on Newark that he cannot resolve under current statutes, including its widening pool of teachers who have been deemed excess by the district’s dropping enrollment but are left idle when other schools are not picking them up.

Under the state seniority laws, the teachers cannot be laid off without less experienced teachers going first.

But Ruiz reminded Cerf that Newark remains a state-operated district, and asked him why, if these teachers are truly excess and unwanted, the state doesn’t step in to potentially buy them out.

“You are the one ultimately responsible for the district,” Ruiz said.

On one of the most contentious topics going into the budget process, legislators spent little time yesterday on the administration’s proposal for a pilot school-voucher program.

The program’s Opportunity Scholarship Grants would provide $2 million in vouchers to low-income students in low-performing schools to attend other schools of their choice, public or private.

But Democratic leaders have said the proposal, at least as presented in the state budget, is all but dead, and Cerf was left yesterday reading its epitaph.

“To say we can’t find $2 million because of politics and nothing to do with the children, that to me is an astonishing outcome,” he said.

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