Program Cuts, Pay Cuts, Job Cuts: Proposed School Budget Offers No Easy Answers

Administration unveils $1.1 billion cut in school aid across the state. Schol districts scramble to make up the shortfall

The prospect of deep state aid cuts for New Jersey schools has left many districts grappling with a difficult tradeoff for next year: win pay concessions from teachers and administrators or start the layoffs (see Where the Money Goes).

And for some, it may require both.

Districts across the state are staggering after the release yesterday of Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed state aid amounts for next year that call for a $1.1 billion reduction statewide, an average of about 15 percent for each district.

Sixty districts would lose all their direct aid under the proposal and another 240 would see at least 20 percent cuts.

That has left districts scrambling to make up the difference in preliminary budget plans due next week, with pay reductions or freezes the most immediate option. Staff salaries and benefits make up about two third of districts overall costs.

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School Aid - By School District

Franklin Township Could See 40 Percent Reduction In State Aid

The call has hit home in Franklin Township, where a proposed cut of $6.3 million in state aid—a close to 40 percent reduction from this year—has the local board pleading for concessions from the teachers union. The cut is 5 percent of the district’s overall budget of $126 million.

In a special meeting tonight at Franklin Middle School, district officials said that even with a full pay freeze, 40 teacher and administrative positions would be eliminated, the boys golf and girls field hockey teams would be cut, and other extracurricular and elective programs would be reduced.

Without any union concession, the pain piles on: full-time kindergarten would be reduced to half-day, all sports and extra-curricular budgets would be cut by half, and virtually all non-required busing would be eliminated, officials said.

“If the unions don’t step up and offer relief, we’re going to have a budget gap of $5.4 million,” said Superintendent Edward Seto. ‘That’s the reality we’ll have to work with.”

Seto said he has set a March 25 deadline for the union to respond.

Superintendent Says Layoffs ‘Unavoidable’

“Given the reductions we have, layoffs are unavoidable,” he said. “Depending on what scenario we end up with will determine the number.”

The budget struggle is being repeated in countless districts statewide, with residents packing meetings to hear districts lay out the likelihood of deep program cuts and staff reductions.

In a speech to a charter school association in Long Branch today, an undaunted Christie said the cuts are unavoidable if the state is to close a $10.7 billion revenue gap, and he called for teachers to put aside their raises to help districts withstand the reductions. He has also called for 2.5 percent caps on local taxes and spending.

But reflecting the rising tensions over his pronouncements, Christie’s afternoon visit to Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin was cancelled at the last minute, apparently at the district’s request. “The district superintendent said he could not guarantee a constructive environment,” said Michael Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman.

The Southern Regional superintendent, Craig Henry, did not return a call requesting comment.

New Jersey’s school boards association also today asked the state’s teachers unions to come back to the bargaining table.

“Local school districts need to take this approach now,” Marie Bilik, the association’s executive director, said in a Statehouse press conference. “Otherwise, the loss of teachers and other staff will only diminish the quality of school programs and will hurt New Jersey’s children.”

Only 15 Districts Out of 600 Reopen Contract Talks

Still, Bilik acknowledged the prospects of such concessions are daunting. She said just 15 districts out of nearly 600 so far have even reopened contracts to address the state’s fiscal crisis, with only one or two deferring any wage increases.

There was little encouragement from the groups most affected, either. A spokesman for the state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, said any decision to reopen contract talks must be a local one.

The association representing top school administrators said all options are on the table, but would have to be determined district by district.

“The loss of state aid in the current budget as well as the unprecedented aid cuts slated for the next fiscal year require that nothing be ruled out, including pay adjustments which can be agreed upon by public employees and their employing agency,” said Richard Bozza, director of the superintendents association.

In addition to the wage freeze, the school boards association asked for a suspension of school budget elections for 2010 to give districts time to adjust their spending plans to the new aid numbers.

Otherwise, proposed budgets must be drafted for the April 20 votes within the next week, leaving districts to plan out drastic cuts in the course of only a few days.

The budgets would still fall under tax caps, although there are extensive exemptions that officials said could still boost property taxes as high as 10 percent.

“Even if we could just have the time to prepare the public for what’s to come,” said Bilik.

Drewniak, Christie’s spokesman, said the governor would not support a suspension of the school votes.