From resignation to outrage, districts react to word from Trenton on school aid

Officials and advocates in school districts across New Jersey reacted Monday to news that the state Department of Education had approved just $15 million of a requested $362 million in additional state aid with a mixture of resignation and outrage.

More than 30 districts had requested the so-called emergency aid, and state officials late last week announced that just 13 will share in the $15 million, with Paterson getting the largest amount — $5 million of the $24 million it has requested.

The reaction in Jersey City, which had taken the state to court over aid cuts and will receive none of the $215 million it sought, was especially vehement.

“The State’s continued reckless abandon of the 33,000 students of Jersey City public schools is most disappointing, further vindicating our decision to sue the state for full funding of Jersey City Schools,” said Sudhan Thomas, the president of the city Board of Education.

In Toms River, where a request for $4.4 million yielded roughly $800,000, officials termed the award “a slap in the face.”

As with Jersey City, the state told officials with the Toms River Regional District it had other resources it could tap to make up costs.

“This is nothing short of a slap in the face to our district, our students, our families, and our community. What is clear, and disconcerting, is that the NJDOE either does not understand how to manage a school budget, or they do not care,” a district statement read. “This is ‘shut up money.’ But we will not shut up.”

In Paterson, mayor Andre Sayegh said the extra aid was appreciated but acknowledged that the award fell far short of the amount requested. “We’re not going to look a gift horse in the mouth,” he said.

“I advocated vigorously so the first call the governor made was to me,” he said. “I called the superintendent to say we got it.”

Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, said that the award, while welcomed, was not adequate to meet the district’s needs.

“Yes, we’re thankful for the $5 million, but there’s so much more that’s needed for our kids,” she said. “We’re shortchanging them on their education.”

In a statement, the state Department of Education defended the awards.

“The Department implemented a thorough and detailed needs assessment of each application,” said spokesman Mike Yaple. “We have also informed each school district that if circumstances change during the school year, the district may request to submit additional information for the Department’s consideration.”

In Paterson, officials slashed nearly 300 jobs earlier this year, saying the crisis was the result of roughly $100 million in underfunding going back a decade.

Grant says classrooms are bursting at the seams. She said she’d love to see the $5 million go to hire more teachers. But she worried about how long they’ll stay on the payroll if future money isn’t guaranteed.

“The hole in the budget as we look at next year is enough to say, ‘OK, let’s close 10 schools,’” she said. “The district is in need, the need is desperate,” she added.

Meanwhile, the Legislature is moving fast on a bill to help districts that lost state aid make up for their losses by lifting the 2% cap on annual property taxes increases.

But Gov. Phil Murphy has said he opposes the bill as written, saying the Legislature should instead embrace his call for a true millionaire’s tax, rather than asking property taxpayers to dig deeper.

“We get it all the time from taxpayers. They’re outraged that their taxes go up 2% at that, so we’ve been trying to hold the line,” said Sayegh.

Officials in some districts are holding community meetings this week to gather feedback.

In Toms River, representatives of the school system are planning a mass rally in Trenton outside Murphy’s office on Tuesday.