Paterson School District’s Financial Woes Continue, Awaits Emergency State Aid

Shortfall of $63 million projected in coming fiscal year after loss of 128 teaching positions last year due to budget constraints

As they await word from Trenton on their plea for financial help, leaders of Paterson public schools say they once again are trying to stretch a budget already so thin that class sizes for most students far exceed state standards.

“The data shows that 3,000 classes are overcrowded right now,” said Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for the city schools. “That’s devastating. It’s heartbreaking.”

The long-struggling district is projecting a $63 million shortfall in the coming fiscal year, after enduring the loss of 128 teaching positions last year due to budget constraints.

“We’re really going to work hard not to cut teachers,” said Eileen Shafer, Paterson Schools superintendent. “We cannot continue to increase class sizes.”

A high-poverty urban school system with lagging student performance that relies heavily on state funding, Paterson’s schools are already well over state standards for class sizes. District records shows that 919 classes exceed the limit of 21 students for grades K-3, 516 classes exceed the 23-student limit for grades 4 and 5, and 1,619 classes are over the 24-student max for grades 6-12.

Grant says Paterson’s kids deserve much more than what they’re getting.

“How do teachers keep up with getting kids to the standards when they have 30, 35 kids in the classroom and not enough resources?” she asked.

State aid for the K-12 operations of the city district this school year is nearly $440 million, reflecting two years of increase during the term of Gov. Phil Murphy.

But Grant says it’s not enough to dig the district out of a decade of deficits.

A history of deficits

“We’ve been waiting for full state funding since [the] 2008-2009 school year,” she said. “So it’s been deficit, year after year. It’s been cuts, year after year.”

Shafer applied to the state for emergency state aid in August and is still waiting for the results.

“We asked for $24 million,” she said. “We did hear back where they needed us to address and make an adjustment in the application, provide more information. We did that back in September and that’s where we are right now.”

The head of the Paterson teachers union says the district’s budget woes not only affect how well teachers can perform in overcrowded classrooms, they also impact the quality of the teachers the district can hire when they can’t guarantee that the job is secure.

“I know that the superintendent and the Board of Education are doing a very, very good job of trying to attract and retain talent from all over the state of New Jersey to come to Paterson. But it’s very difficult to do that when you never know where you’ll be in May,” said John McEntee, president of the Paterson Education Association.

In a statement, the state Department of Education said it “continues to work with the district to address the matters. It’s evaluating the applications for emergency aid, but there is no announcement at this time.”

Critical time for the district

The financial issues come at a critical time for Paterson, as the district is in the midst of the two-year process of taking back local control of the district after 27 years of state control.

“We’re held to high standards when it comes to transitioning to local control,” Shafer said. “And that includes our graduation rate; it includes student achievement.”

Grant said the funding issues stand to hurt the public perception of the district at a key moment.

“We have less money, but people are going, ‘Oh, now you’re accountable. You’ve been blaming the state for this all along but now the district is accountable because you’re returning to local control,’” she said. “Well, that’s not really fair if it’s been set up for failure.”

Grant said the issue goes beyond simple dollars and cents.

“It’s also about children’s lives,” she said. “We will lose a whole generation of children if we don’t do something.”

The district is scheduled to regain control next September.