Op-Ed: Stimulus money is not a replacement for school funding

NJ school superintendents argue that one-time federal injection of funds is not a substitute for the millions of dollars being stripped from public schools by Senate Bill 2 and state’s broken funding formula
L to R: J. Kenyon Kummings, Charles Sampson and Carol Birnbohm

Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent announcement regarding his expectation that all New Jersey public schools will be open for in-person instruction for five full days a week is a great starting point for all school leaders to visualize the 2021–2022 school year. All districts should be able to meet the safety requirements as well as the academic, social and emotional needs by utilizing the funds generated by the American Rescue Plan. But with cuts stemming from New Jersey Senate Bill 2 (S-2) — which modified the school-funding law — looming for many districts, that is not the reality.

All 600-plus New Jersey public school districts will receive funding to help recover from the setbacks caused by the pandemic. But it will not help the 100-plus school districts representing hundreds of thousands of students in the Support Our Students (SOS) coalition recover from losing millions of dollars in state school funding due to S-2 and the state’s broken funding formula.

The stimulus assistance must be spent within 24 months and has clearly outlined uses. The total amount received by individual districts in most cases is far less than the cumulative damage from the compounding funding cuts resulting from S-2. The total loss of state school funding will far exceed the stimulus aid by the time S-2 is fully phased in, and for many districts it already has.

Lenape Regional High School District will see its gains wiped away by their total cumulative loss of over $26.3 million by S-2. The money Wildwood was provided to help recover from the pandemic will be less than than their recovery of S-2 after full implementation and will show a loss of over $7.7 million. And even more compelling, the cumulative loss in school funding to the Freehold Regional High School District is $114.9 million, which far exceeds any additional stimulus funding the district might receive.

School districts rely on state school funding for basic operational needs. The one-time injection of stimulus money provided to public schools is not a substitute for the millions of dollars of state school funding being stripped away by S-2.

Under constant attack

The purpose of the stimulus money is to provide much-needed funding for the exorbitant costs related to closing the digital divide, disinfecting school classrooms, improving ventilation, extra personnel costs, closing achievement gaps and many more unplanned expenses brought on by operating a school in a pandemic. Equally important, it will enable districts to provide for the safety, academic and social-emotional needs of our students as we move forward.

Year after year the cumulative financial blows from S-2 have disproportionately landed on our chins. This constant attack is taking a toll on our taxpayers, our programs, our staffing and ultimately on every student, pre-K to 12 in schools at the losing end of S-2. Will our elected officials retreat or will they continue to allow these blows to rain down upon us until the lifeblood of our communities — our local schools — are no longer able to deliver high-quality education to the children we serve?

We cannot wait for these answers. Just as school leaders needed the clarity our governor provided when he stated his expectations for the 2021–2022 school year, we need clarity on the future of school funding. We need action from our elected officials.

“We are in this together” has united us during this pandemic. It should also be a reminder to our state leaders that this year, of all years, we should stand together and pause the cuts to school funding. Invite school leaders to the table to help examine and update the antiquated funding formula. Together we can provide every child, every family and every community with certainty in their public schools in these uncertain times and ensure that New Jersey holds its top national ranking for public schools.

We’re in this together
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