Fine Print: How and Where to Spend $81.8 million

John Mooney | July 28, 2011 | Education
Elizabeth takes biggest share of the Abbott settlement, and makes big plans to remake its schools

What it is: The Elizabeth schools will receive $81.8 million of the $447 million ordered by the state Supreme Court for New Jersey’s high-poverty schools in its latest Abbott v. Burke ruling. It is by far the largest amount, double that of Newark’s. Approved by the local board last Thursday, this is the supplemental budget the district submitted to the state for spending the money in 2011-2012. The state’s final decision is pending.

What it means: The supplemental budget is as much a policy statement as spending document, and in this case, it comes with one, too. The summary statement lays out plans for further extending the school day at 12 neighborhood schools, expanding its ninth grade programs and undertaking $8 million in facilities repairs.

Why so much: Elizabeth is not the state’s largest district — Newark is almost twice as large. But the court’s order in its latest Abbott ruling demanded the 31 Abbott districts be fully funded under the state’s school finance formula, and Elizabeth was by far the most behind in both what it should spend and its local tax base’s ability to pay.

Where specifically it will go: Under the district’s plan, more than half of the total will go to salaries and benefits for 400 new staff, more than making up for last year’s cuts of about 170 people. More than $17 million will go to classroom teachers, close to $5 million for social workers and other support staff, $1.9 million for special education teachers and $2 million for supervisors. The district will also spend about $8 million new supplies and technology.

The side story: While the district has this sudden windfall of cash, it is also facing considerable political heat over newspaper revelations of cronyism and nepotism. The Newark Star-Ledger has published several investigative pieces saying that it found widespread political abuses — and payoffs — in hiring and firing staff, including teachers. In response, the district has enlisted former Supreme Court justice Gary Stein to conduct an internal investigation.

And with it comes critics: State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) has been a longtime foe of the current administration, led by superintendent Pablo Munoz and former school board member Rafael Fajardo. Himself a political powerbroker in Union County, Lesniak has openly complained for years about the what he calls the machine politics in the district, and said the recent stories only point to the need for more state oversight. The $81.7 windfall hardly calms him. “My fear is they will only waste more, there will be more political jobs, and they will not be doing what they should with it,” he said.

The state’s take: The Christie administration has so far stayed out of the controversy, at least publicly. But it is sure to look closely at the money in the latest submittal, if only to avoid embarrassment. Gov. Chris Christie and his education chief, Chris Cerf, have also been openly skeptical about how New Jersey’s urban schools spend their money. The court’s ruling did not call for any strict conditions on the added money, but local officials have said they expect some during the budget reviews. Elizabeth’s presentation before the state comes August 15.

The last word: A district spokesman said the supplemental budget is putting the money in the right places. “I believe these are the things that people want to see in urban schools today: the teachers, the extended day, the support services,” said spokesman Donald Goncalves. As for the controversy, he said the district has confidence in Stein’s review. “Our administrative costs are below state averages, and we’re instituting some great reforms,” he said. “We’re getting accolades from the right places.”