NJ schools to get $2.7 billion — and rules on how to spend it

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File photo: Students heading back to school

New Jersey’s school leaders are getting a first look this week at the details for more than $2.7 billion in federal pandemic aid heading to their public schools.

Needless to say, the amounts for many districts are dizzying, yet so are the processes and procedures for how it will all work.

The state Department of Education this week notified districts of their aid amounts and other details in the massive COVID-19 relief program approved by President Joe Biden and Congress — a total of $122 billion distributed to schools across the nation.

The money — the largest of three major school-relief packages from Washington since last year — is meant to bolster districts’ resources for a wide range of support and services for students during and after the pandemic, from extra academic programs to counselors to air-ventilation systems.

Already estimated by districts depending on their student enrollments, the aid figures start at $19,000 in the one-school district of West Cape May Elementary and go as high as $177 million to Newark — nearly a fifth of the district’s overall budget for a year.

Funds coming in two installments

But with the money come the rules. And the districts were told of the extensive application and review process guiding the release of funds in what will be two installments, with details on how they can be used and when.

Districts can apply until November, at which time they will get two-thirds of the money. The remaining third will be provided when the applications are approved.

It’s been a hot topic in Trenton and in state houses across the country on how to best — and most responsibly — utilize this windfall without handcuffing districts too much from tending to their particular needs. The federal guidelines list 16 allowable uses, some specific to extended-day or other extra instructional programs and others as broad as general support for principals “to address the needs of their individual schools.”

To be eligible, districts will also need to submit their formal health and safety plans for opening the new school year in September, with Gov. Phil Murphy already announcing that schools will need to open with all in-person instruction and no options for remote learning.

“When you see the numbers, it can be mind-boggling, but it comes with a lot of strings attached to how you can use that money,” said Elisabeth Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents more than 100 mostly suburban districts.

“None of it is a big surprise,” she said, “but it has left our [business administrators] scratching their heads to how they can use the money and when they can use it.”

Addressing learning loss

An important note is that while these are one-time infusions of money, they can be used through October 2024, others said. Districts will also be required to apply at least 20% to programs to address so-called “learning loss.”

“If people are smart about this, they will realize they have three years to use this,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.

Under the law, the state Department of Education can hold back 10% of the funds for specialized projects, and the state’s plan said it will direct at least half of that $200 million in extra grants to school districts to address learning loss specifically.

It also outlined extensive plans for technical support and data collection, and has enlisted the help of colleges and universities as well.

Yet questions were raised this week about the adequacy of the state education department’s own staffing to oversee the process.

The Education Law Center, the advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke school-equity litigation, released an analysis that shows a 24% drop in department staffing in the last decade, much of it in the last three years under Murphy.

Not enough staff in state Department of Education?

“The Department of Education has been hollowed out of essential staff in recent years, especially in high level positions requiring experienced personnel to lead the agency in data collection and analysis, racial equity, special education and other crucial areas,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director.

“As we’ve seen after schools closed last March, the NJDOE’s response to the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 on our students and schools has consisted of little more than sending out checklists for districts to fill out.”

Others have called for the Murphy administration to create a commission or working group of stakeholders and experts to help guide districts and the state in utilizing the funds.

“This commission could help to ensure that the best research and best practices guide the implementation of this state plan and other ongoing efforts to accelerate learning and get students back on track,” said Janellen Duffy of JerseyCAN, an advocacy group that has pressed for strong interventions.

The state plan is open for public comment until June 3, with comment to be sent to ARPPlan@doe.nj.gov. Individual district plans must also be open to public review under the outlines of the funding. Reopening plans are due to the state by June 24.

— Colleen O’Dea contributed to this story.