Dealing with Sandy’s Aftermath Puts Schools to the Test

John Mooney | December 4, 2012 | Education, Sandy
Senate Budget Committee hears about impact on school year, tax ratables, budgets

From the fate of the 180-day rule to the cost of rebuilding schools and their budgets, state education officials faced a host of questions yesterday regarding the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the state’s public schools.

The immediate impact was obvious, with days lost to a storm that forced more than a week of school closures – and even more in some cases – and displaced thousands of students from their home schools.

Eleven schools remain closed to this day, with several unlikely to reopen until next year, officials said.

Even at reopened schools, officials are still grappling with how to make up the lost time, not to mention the potential financial losses in damaged buildings and the devastated tax bases that districts rely on for their funding.

That lost classroom time was the topic of the first question posed to state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday in a special hearing of the Senate Budget Committee to explore the impact of Hurricane Sandy.

As expected, Cerf said the state’s requirement that schools hold 180 days of instruction each year would remain intact, with maybe a few extreme exceptions that he would consider for a possible waiver.

He said overall there is enough leeway in calendars that districts should be able to make up the lost days, either by shortening vacations or taking advantage of other opportunities like the recent cancellation of the state teachers’ union convention.

“We are not waiving and do not intend to waive the rule in an across-the- board way,” Cerf told the Senate hearing, which was held at Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford.

“In extreme circumstances, we will entertain, on a district-by-district basis, applications for some kind of special dispensation,” he said. “But I think it is premature to do that, and I would encourage districts to do, as they have been doing … (everything) to recapture those days.”

Legislators explored some ideas of their own, one asking whether schools could add time to the school day that would make up lost days and others suggesting Saturday classes. The latter is permitted, but simply lengthening the school day and counting it as separate days is not, Cerf said.

But that may have been the easiest call of the day, as the longer-term issues remain fluid, especially pertaining to funding needs.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate education committee, listed a number of immediate needs such as added transportation costs. But she said there are also likely scores of districts that will see even bigger hits in their tax bases due to the hurricane and the property damage it caused. The likely increase in property taxes has been widely discussed in the Sandy’s aftermath, but Ruiz focused on what would happen if those taxes are not recovered.

“Who is going to fund that kind of revenue gap that will be created?” she asked. “In the short term we needed to start to think about it — April (and annual budget decisions) is rolling around.

“But long term, the faces of districts could potentially change, where you could see some school districts go to smaller number of students when they don’t move back in or that revenue base simply doesn’t exist any more,” she said.

Cerf agreed there would likely be what he called “funding dislocations,” although he said if Hurricane Katrina is any guide, the immediate impact may be skewed due to additional emergency aid and insurance coming to hard-hit communities.

“But that as it may, certain assumptions are made in the funding formula about resources, and those assumptions may be seriously challenged as tax collections are completed,” he said.

Ruiz and others also asked about the availability of state money to help schools physically rebuild, with more than 100 schools significantly damaged by Sandy. Almost universally, the legislators pointed to the Schools Development Authority, the long-beleaguered agency charged with building schools in the state’s neediest districts but widely criticized for its slow pace.

“We haven’t built schools in the last couple of years, and we need the infusion of money to get these kids back in their schools,” said state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the budget committee.

Ruiz cautioned against taking money from one needed program to fund another, but she said it pointed to a wideapread worry about the state’s lackluster support of building schools’ infrastructure, a situation that Sandy has only worsened.