Teaching Jobs Saved by Stimulus, But New Losses Loom

With federal funds largely spent and budget cuts taking effect, school districts statewide mull their options

New Jersey’s public schools were able to save or create nearly 16,000 jobs with federal stimulus funds last year, according to new state data.

But the gains could be short-lived: The state’s dominant teachers union this week estimated as many as 10,000 positions being lost in the coming year due to layoffs and retirements.

School districts are required to account for every job saved or created under more than $1.6 billion in stimulus funds awarded last year, and state officials released the year-end data last week showing 15,676 such jobs for the period of April through June, 2010.

More than 12,000 of those jobs were through $1 billion in stabilization aid that was used to avoid state aid cuts under former Gov. Jon Corzine’s last state budget, the rest through targeted programs for low-income and special needs children. More than 10,000 of those 12,000 were instructional or teaching positions.

Still, any firm number is uncertain, state officials emphasized, as districts reported different totals for each quarter and there is no one total for the year. In addition, the federal government changed the reporting requirements last December, further confusing the figures. But officials said the quarter representing the last three months of the school year were likely the most accurate.

Either way, the picture grows bleaker from there. The bulk of the stimulus money has been spent, and schools will benefit from no such largesse in the coming year as Gov. Chris Christie reduced every districts’ state aid by up to 5 percent of their overall budgets, leading to widespread cuts and layoffs.

Midway through the summer, any statewide total of jobs lost remains elusive, as districts still weigh different options and await additional teacher retirements that could offset layoffs.

The New Jersey Education Association said it counts nearly 7,000 teacher retirements filed so far, twice the average number of teachers leaving annually in a recent years. It said overall there could be as many as another 3,000 teacher positions eliminated outright, but it stressed the count won’t be known for sure until the school year begins.

“Bottom line: I believe there will be 10,000 fewer teachers, about 7 percent, and last time I checked, they weren’t laying off students,” said Steve Wollmer, a NJEA spokesman. “So class sizes are going up, and programs are being cut.

“I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am,” he said.

There remain several wild cards. One is the extent to which retirements help districts save funds and allow them to minimize any layoffs. Another is the hope, though fleeting, of additional federal aid.

The Obama administration is pressing for $10 billion in additional funds to help states avoid teacher layoffs. But so far only the House has approved the bill, with shrinking prospects in the Senate.

“They can’t vote out $10 billion, let alone the $100 billion that was in the stimulus last year,” said Jack Jennings, president of the Center for Education Policy in Washington, D.C. “It doesn’t look like there will be any last-minute help. It looks like a lot of teachers will be losing their jobs.”