Q&A: Assessing EduJobs

John Mooney | September 21, 2010 | Education
Answering questions about how the Christie administration plans to disburse $268 million in supplemental federal school aid

The Christie administration yesterday released the district-by-district breakdown of the $268 million in extra federal school aid for New Jersey districts, funds meant to help save teaching positions and other jobs lost to state budget cuts. The federal aid program — known as EduJobs — had been hotly contested in New Jersey, with Gov. Chris Christie lukewarm about the prospects, and critics saying he wasn’t moving fast enough to even apply. To help explain, here’s a few answers to some of the most common questions raised so far.

Question: Who gets what?
Answer: Without much explanation, the Christie administration provided a 13-page document breaking down the aid for each district, from $103 to Teterboro – a district with actually no schools – to more than $23 million in Newark.

Q: How did the state decide who gets what?
A: The administration yesterday would not provide its formulation, but it agreed in the application to the federal government that it would follow New Jersey’s funding formula in determining each district’s total. That furnishes some flexibility, given the complexity of the formula, but it appears from the totals that the larger the district and the more low-income students, the more funds were awarded.

Q: Who were the biggest winners?
A: Urban districts appeared the biggest winners in terms of dollars. The top 16 totals were all in urban districts that fell under the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings, from Newark’s $23 million down to West New York’s $2.6 million. But it wasn’t all in the cities; other large districts also did relatively well, including Hamilton, Toms River and Freehold Regional.

Q: The biggest losers?
A: Every district received at least some money, so there are no outright losers, but the small or wealthy districts appeared to receive the smallest sums. From Avalon to Deal to Essex Fells, 25 districts received less than $10,000, barely enough to pay for a single teacher’s health benefits, let alone salary. More than 170 districts received less than $50,000, the average salary of a New Jersey teacher in 2010.

Q: Does this at least make up for some of the state budget cuts?

A: For some, it’s a huge rebound. Newark is recovering more than half of the $43 million cut from its 2011 aid, and Elizabeth would recover more than two-thirds. And not just for the cities, since Little Egg Harbor and Haledon would recover three-quarters of their respective cuts. But the statewide average is only about 18 percent of the total cuts in aid, and for more than 220 districts, the EduJobs money is less than 10 percent of what they lost in state aid.

Q: So will this at least go to rehiring laid-off teachers?

A: Not exactly. Ostensibly, the money is meant to help rehire an estimated 3,900 lost school jobs in New Jersey. But the law requires only that the money be spent on personnel costs, with no requirement it be spent on specific positions that may have been cut in the last year. The law doesn’t even require it to be for teachers at all. But state officials in their instructions to districts yesterday did suggest the money be spent in ways that would benefit students the most. “It is my hope that this unexpected revenue will be directed to those areas most likely to help our students excel academically, namely classroom activities,” wrote acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks.

Q: What’s next?
A: Districts need to spend the money this year or commit it for next year by September 2011. Several district leaders have already said that with the year underway, it is more likely that at least some of the money will go to help close next year’s expected budget gap. But one of Christie’s biggest reservations was that the money would only put districts in a deeper hole once it runs out, and Hendricks in her letter urged districts not to overly commit themselves. “It is unwise to assume that there will be additional streams of federal jobs money in planning for the future,” she wrote.