The budget hearing was on the hottest topic in Trenton, if not the state: Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed $1.1 billion in school aid cuts.
In their first formal shot at the plan, Democrats on the Senate Budget Committee fired away at Education Commissioner Bret Schundler about how the cuts would decimate schools and hurt children.
Republicans took their own turns to say it’s about time that school spending is brought under control.
And after four hours – with just one five-minute break – and as weary legislators filed out for the day, Schundler was still going, parrying questions about the intricacies of pension law and formula aid to anyone who would listen.
“I think at the end of the day, you will see most of the legislators here today support this budget,” he told a group of reporters.
Maybe wishful thinking, but for Schundler’s part, it won’t be for lack of trying.
With his reading glasses poised on the tip of his nose throughout, Schundler played part professor, part bureaucrat and all loyal partisan as he took in a barrage of questions about Christie’s controversial budget.
Schundler was caught on a couple of points, and backed off on his boss’s fiery comments from the day before that voters next week should reject local budgets without any concessions from teachers.
“I don’t really think that was what the governor was trying to say,” Schundler said, before adding he would not make the same recommendation.
Under the governor’s plan, state education spending for education would drop $819 million in 2011, with direct state aid to schools falling $1.1 billion. That’s a nearly 20 percent cut statewide, with half all districts losing at least 25 percent and 60 districts losing all their classroom aid.
School districts preparing budgets for next Tuesday’s local votes have warned of layoffs in the thousands and the loss of after-school and extracurricular programs like sports and band.
It doesn’t seem to be going over well with residents, either, at least according to two new polls out this week. A Monmouth-Gannett poll found that just 22 percent of those surveyed were satisfied with Christie’s overall budget, and only 26 percent said it spread the cuts “fairly” across all groups. The latest Rutgers-Eagleton Poll said 57 percent want no cuts at all to public schools.
At the budget hearing today, Senate Democrats listed a litany of cuts in their own legislative districts.
In Newark, it’s “450 teachers, 390 support staff, and still a 4 percent property tax increase as part of the budget,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who chairs the Senate’s education committee. “What else can we tell them to do?”
Schundler said the state was left little choice after $1.1 billion in federal stimulus funds for schools dried up, leaving a gaping hole for Christie to address.
But he said it was even more critical that the state and districts need the tools to get their costs under control, especially around salaries and benefits. Christie has proposed a series of steps to put caps on school spending and give districts more collective bargaining powers.
“If nothing changes, on top of the layoffs for 2011, they will be forced into more layoffs in 2012, and even more the year after that and the year after that,” Schundler said.