With everything else going on, New Jersey’s public schools are also about to enter a most-unusual budget season for the next school year, with a range of questions looming, both familiar and not.
A fundamental question facing them like never before, of course, is what will schooling even look like whenever New Jersey comes out of the pandemic.
But as local districts draft their budgets for 2021-2022, more familiar questions are arising over what share the state will bear of both existing costs and extraordinary ones.
So far, there have been few clear signals either way, as Gov. Phil Murphy starts finalizing his state budget to be presented a month away, on Feb. 23.
But school leaders have taken some comfort in the fact that Murphy has been trumpeting his earlier financial support of public schools, including in his State of the State address and more recently in his regular press briefings.
And with the help of a massive $4 billion state borrowing package and any yet-to-be-determined federal aid under the Biden administration’s COVID-19 relief plan, the state’s once-dire predictions of teacher layoffs and other cuts have dissipated.
“We are the number one state for public education precisely because of our strong support for attending to the educational, social, and emotional needs of our entire education community,” Murphy said in the State of the State address.
‘We won’t let our students or our educators down’
“We won’t let our students or our educators down now,” he said. “That effort matters today, and it will pay further dividends as we move forward to close the remaining educational gaps among our students, such as by protecting school funding and expanding access to pre-K — one of the smartest investments we can make.”
Given that Murphy is running for reelection alongside the entire Legislature, it hardly seems likely he would mar that message with a round of financial hurt.
“You have to remember it’s an election year, and usually in an election year, you don’t see [state aid] reductions,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the state’s superintendents association.
But how much Murphy and the Legislature will support schools in a year with countless financial pressures is less clear. Many districts have taken hits to their enrollments, and in a funding formula based on per-pupil costs, how will that impact them? And what about school staff that has been less utilized, including cafeteria workers, bus drivers and others?
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Bozza said about all such questions. “I would think that as people are putting together their [local] budgets, they are planning at this point for flat funding — and hoping for more.”
Fully funding school finance formula
Senate President Steve Sweeney told NJ Spotlight News recently that he would support moving the state back onto the seven-year track to fully fund New Jersey’s school finance formula, a package agreed to four years ago that included a mix of aid increases for most districts and cuts for a significant number of others.
“We haven’t had a conversation with the administration yet, but we would like to get back on track to [fully funding the school funding formula],” Sweeney said in an interview earlier this month.
When asked specifically, he said that would include lifting districts that have been underfunded for a decade, if not longer, and also continued aid reductions to approximately 200 so-called “adjustment aid” districts that have been overfunded by the state’s count to the tune of $600 million.
Sweeney said he plans to offer one carrot and slow the phaseout of aid to those adjustment districts willing to consider spending reforms such as school regionalization and consolidations. Sweeney has made school consolidations and regionalizations a central piece in his cost-saving blueprint.
The Senate president said he also would continue to press the state to pay its full share of so-called “extraordinary aid” for special education costs exceeding certain thresholds.
“And that helps everybody, including the adjustment districts,” he said.
Jonathan Pushman, chief lobbyist for the state’s school boards association, said he is especially hopeful amid recent reports of better than expected tax revenues for the current fiscal year.
“If state revenues are there, it should certainly be prioritized to helping school districts,” he said. “If the tax collections are there and the federal help will be there, let’s get back on the path of fully funding the formula.”
The possibility of federal help has been somewhat of a moving target. New Jersey gained about $1.5 billion in additional COVID-19-related aid under the $53 billion package passed by Congress in December, and President Joe Biden has promised that’s just a start.
His proposal before Congress is for an additional $130 billion for K-12 schools, potentially tripling or even quadrupling the sum coming to New Jersey districts.
Pushman said the potential costs facing school districts to make up the losses of the last 10 months are immense, including those for extra academic and support programs. He cited the example of special education, where programs for districts’ most specialized needs will be acute.
“The need there will be in remediation and just catching up,” he said. “Remember, we weren’t even meeting all of our needs before the pandemic.”
Elisabeth Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, representing mostly suburban districts, said districts are unlikely to build additional federal aid into the next budget until they actually see it.
“The superintendents and business administrators I talk to tend to be a cautious group; they’re really not counting on it,” she said.
Ginsburg, herself a school board member in Glen Ridge for more than two decades — and president for 19 — said it is a difficult year for any local district to make predictions, especially about funding.
“School funding is always an equation with many variables,” she said, “and this year there are certainly more variables than usual.”