Last-Minute Federal School Aid May Be Too Late To Put NJ Teachers Back In Classrooms for the Fall

NJ is slated to receive $270 million in federal school stimulus funds, but distribution delays could mean that educators will not be in place at the start of the school year

Going into their toughest budget year in decades, New Jersey’s public schools are likely to soon get $270 million in last-minute federal aid to at least soften the blow and help restore as many as 3,200 jobs.

But with last week’s news that Congress was poised to approve $10 billion in assistance, came many questions as to how the funds will be distributed. And with the school year close to starting, will the money even meet its expressed goal of saving teaching jobs, at least in the short term?

“We don’t know yet,” said Jack Jennings, president of the Center of Education Policy in Washington, D.C. “It will probably work differently, school district by school district. People didn’t know it was coming, so each will handle it in different ways.”

A Welcome Relief

That’s not to say many school and education leaders in New Jersey weren’t welcoming the prospect of relief.

Gov. Chris Christie and the legislature cut $1.1 billion in state aid to school districts, the steepest cuts ever, and scores of districts have either laid off staff or eliminated positions vacated by retirements.

For instance, the Edison school district, the state’s fifth largest, stands to lose 150 positions going into the new year, even after $2 million in new savings was reached in a labor concessions with the teachers union last week.

Hiring Hassles

Gene Maeroff, Edison’s school board president, said it may be tough to hire back teachers at this point, at least for the opening of schools, but it could help with other staff positions.

“They would be people like guidance counselors,” Maeroff said. “They would probably be easier to restore than teachers. We’ve already arranged classes and schedules, and it’s a far more complicated issue. Maybe that would be more for the second semester.”

“But even guidance counselors and others like that, we would certainly welcome that at this point,” he said.

The New Jersey Education Association has estimated that as many as 10,000 New Jersey teaching and staff jobs could be lost overall this year, about a third through layoffs.

Passed in the Senate last week and expected to see House approval this week, the new stimulus money from Washington, D.C. could help districts retain about a third of those. Unlike the Obama administration’s previous stimulus packages, the money would be earmarked specifically for paying teaching and support personnel. The bill allows the money to be used for the 2011-2012 school year as well.

“That’s good news for our students and their parents, who are worried about their children’s class sizes,” read a statement from Barbara Keshishian, president of the NJEA.

Keshishian urged the Christie administration to move quickly to come up with a plan to distribute the new money.

Putting Things In Place

“The Department of Education needs to take the lead in working with districts to prepare for the influx of federal aid we expect will be approved in the next several days,” said Keshishian’s statement. “This federal funding is explicitly intended to get teachers and other school employees off the layoff list and back in front of their classrooms where they belong.”

The governor’s office will have some discretion in how that happens, with the bill saying that states can either distribute the money by their individual funding formulas or based on federal Title I allocations that are steered more to high-poverty schools. Whether a district has laid off employees or eliminated positions is not a criteria in the bill.

Christie’s spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said the administration was starting to review its options.

“This is still unfolding,” Drewniak said Friday. “We have haven’t seen the bill yet, or looked at how it can be allocated and whether any strings are attached.”

Watch Out for ‘Free Money’

But Drewniak also warned against what he called “free money” that will not likely be replaced next year, much like $1.1 billion in Obama stimulus spent by former Gov. Jon Corzine last year and left a gaping hole in the state budget this year.

“The one thing that should be known with any infusion of cash, as we’ve learned with Corizne, is it definitely has its down side,” Drewniak said. “It’s free money, filling a hole, and there is a problem when we’re not thinking of the consequences and the following year when not available.”

He said the governor’s various proposals for reigning in school spending, including a new 2 percent property tax cap, superintendent salary limits, and several other pieces in his “toolkit” of reforms would not be scaled back.

“We are not going to back away from reforms and the necessary economizing that we need in these difficult economic times,” he said.