NJ Schools Weigh Approaches to Spending Federal Funds

John Mooney | September 17, 2010 | Education
With $268 million in government funds due any day, districts wonder whether to restore staff or plan for future

Even as they wait to see how much money they’ll receive, New Jersey school districts are beginning to plan for how they will spend their slice of $268 million in extra federal education aid.

The federal government has approved New Jersey’s application for the funding, and state officials said that district-by-district numbers should be released any day now.

Without knowing their fate, school leaders have nevertheless begun planning on whether the new money will go directly to rehiring staff lost in this summer’s budget cuts, filling emerging staffing needs or plugging anticipated holes in next year’s budget.

Addressing the Greatest Needs

West Orange’s superintendent, Anthony Cavanna, said he has begun meeting with his staff and others to determine where the greatest needs are after a summer that saw the district eliminate 90 full-time positions, including 39 teachers.

“We would certainly like to bring back some staff, but also want to do what’s best for the district in the long-term,” he said yesterday.

He said foreign language programs were especially hard hit. He also explained that were equity issues to address in providing needed staffing for Title I programs for low-income students and those for limited-English and special-needs students.

“But we really don’t know what to do yet, when we don’t know what the rules will be,” Cavanna said.

Playing by the Rules

The money must be applied to instructional personnel costs, and was overtly aimed at saving some of the jobs that were cut this year, estimated to be close to 10,000 overall in New Jersey. Federal officials said New Jersey’s share could save about 3,900 of those jobs.

But some local officials were cautious that they would do much at all this year. They said rehiring staff at this point may be counter-productive when, in most districts, schedules and programs are in place for the year.

“The longer this goes, the less likely there will be any major restructuring around this,” said Michael Vrancik, lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association. “We almost reached a point of no return on this year.”

State officials said this week they were close to providing the data to districts, with final determinations being made to how the money will be distributed. Under the federal guidelines in the so-called EduJobs funding, New Jersey has been approved to give out the money based on its standing school-funding formula. The state would keep about $6 million for administration of the funds.

The Mysterious Formula

But how that funding formula will be applied remains a mystery to districts, especially since it was largely put aside in the past two years. Former governor Jon Corzine largely kept state aid level in his last year in office and Gov. Chris Christie made deep cuts in his first.

‘If we strictly followed the formula, we would benefit nicely,” said Earl Kim, superintendent of Montgomery schools. “But since we haven’t followed the formula for the last two years, who knows what they will do.”

Kim said he’s all but certain to apply whatever money they receive toward next year’s budget, as allowed under the guidelines, to help plug what could be a $3.5 million budget gap.

The district lost all of its state aid under Christie’s cuts, a total of $5 million, and sustained further cuts following the budget defeat in the spring. The district has appealed to the state to restore some funds, but until then, Kim said, it started the year with 40 fewer positions, including 10 teachers and seven administrators.

“We’re like a dehydrated man in the desert, we’ll take any drop of water they can get,” he said.

“It’s not something good to talk about, this is money that is supposed to restore jobs that we cut,” Kim said. “But because of our precarious position, we now need to start thinking about avoiding further cuts for next year.”

Pay to Play

The comments came on a day when the assembly’s education committee heard testimony about how more schools have begun charging activity fees for sports and clubs due to the budget cuts. A separate proposal would allow districts to sell advertisements on the side of school buses to help recoup costs.

In a survey of districts last spring, more than half said they were weighing new activity feeds for their students, according to the state’s school boards association.

In a follow-up survey this week, about 20 percent of responding districts said they had imposed the fees this fall, ranging from $20 to $200 per child, the school boards group said. Some schools have begun to charge for certain non-required busing as well, as much as $400 in some cases.