State Budget for Education is Tight, But Newark Schools May Get $20M Boost in Aid

Special fund offsets costs for ‘host districts’ with abundance of charter schools

David Hespe, New Jersey's commissioner of education
When state aid figures are released today for New Jersey’s public school districts, few are expecting any big increases for their schools.

But one exception may be Newark, the state’s highest-profile district, which looks to see what amounts to a windfall, at least in the context of what is an otherwise tight year.

The district, run by the state since 1994, is expected to receive more than $20 million in additional aid under a new category for “host districts” with high numbers of charter schools that they must help fund out of their own budgets.

The state has yet to say how that category is defined and which other districts might benefit, but state Education Commissioner David Hespe has said that Newark will be the prime beneficiary of the new $25.9 million fund.

That will likely be some comfort to the state-appointed superintendent in Newark, Chris Cerf, who faced a $75 million shortfall when he took over the district last year – one year removed from being state commissioner himself.

This month, Cerf and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka led a wide coalition of Newark groups and leaders in making a direct request to Gov. Chris Christie for roughly $36 million in what they termed “transitional” aid to save the district from steep cuts next year.

Continuing what has been an unlikely political alliance between the two, the superintendent and mayor said in a Feb. 1 letter to the governor that the district had already made significant reductions in costs to close the gap, but it needed the extra help.

The additional aid will amount to just a 3 percent-4 percent increase in overall aid. But Cerf and Baraka said that without it, there could be as many as 600 layoffs, as well as a “significant increase in class sizes” and “significant reductions” in both instructional and non-instructional programs.

“Fully appreciating the complexity of the statewide budget challenges you face, we are grateful for your consideration of this urgent request,” the letter to Christie read.

“We end by reiterating our shared value: that every child in Newark has access to a free, high quality public education. Now is not the time for retreat or reversal.”

The letter was co-signed by a majority of the Newark City Council and the local school board, joined by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz and state Assemblywomen Eliana Pintor and Grace Spencer.

Also signing on were a range of school groups, virtually all from the charter and reform camps, including all of the city’s largest charter networks, Teach for America New Jersey, and the new pro-charter Parent Coalition for Excellent Education.

Ruiz, the influential chair of the Senate education committee and also a member of its budget committee, said on Tuesday that she supported the extra aid.

“They need money, so any additional dollar they get to help close the deficit is a good thing,” she said following Christie’s budget address.

When asked about other districts likely to see smaller increases, Ruiz said they are at least getting some additional aid and that certain emergencies needed to be addressed.

“I think the Legislature recognizes we have to galvanize together to support different geographic locations, and if in fact Newark is going to get this kind of money, it is because it is critically needed,” Ruiz said.

An additional $32 million is earmarked in the governor’s budget for Atlantic City schools to help offset plummeting tax revenues in the face of casino closures.

[related]Some names were conspicuously missing from the letter to Christie, including some outspoken critics of the administration like state Sen. Ronald Rice Sr. and the Newark Teachers Union.

Last night, NTU president John Abeigon said he was never invited to sign the letter but nonetheless agreed it was hard to argue with the letter’s intent.

“Of course we’d support additional aid,” he said. “This formula definitely needs to be addressed.”
Abeigon added that it was similar to the NTU’s plea to the state a year ago to end additional aid to charter schools to keep them level-funded and to instead divert the money to the district.

“I’m glad that Cerf, Baraka and the legislators are catching up and now agreeing with the union,” he said.

Cerf also attended the governor’s budget address on Tuesday but said he would not comment further until the actual aid figures were released.

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