NJ lawmakers demand more information, more school aid dollars

During last year’s budget hearings a raucous caucus of school districts lobbied for more state aid. But this year, an eerily-empty socially-distant debate unfolded before the Senate Budget Committee as lawmakers scrutinized Gov. Phil Murphy’s $8.7 billion school funding proposal.

“Considering the fiscal destruction that the global pandemic has wrought, the stability that Gov. Murphy’s budget brings to our school system is reassuring,” said Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer. “For the second straight year, New Jersey’s schools were named the best in the nation, ranking number one.”

“New Jersey may be ‘number one’ which I think is a complete lie, right? We have some schools that do phenomenally well, and we have some schools that are struggling,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz.

With the pandemic forcing thousands of New Jersey school kids to learn from home, the Department of Education has no concrete data about New Jersey’s digital divide to guide lawmakers. Dehmer said last month it identified about 193,000 students who qualified for federal grants to acquire laptops or an internet connection.

“I don’t know how many are actually available, but we’ve identified funding, through this program we’ve identified funding for all of those students,” Dehmer said.

“The fact that repository of information which is the department can’t report to the Legislature how many students are still disconnected is a huge red flag for all of us. We are ultimately engaging in the process of filtering kids toward failure,” said Ruiz.

“Quite a few municipalities in my district, that even if you were to give a child a laptop it wouldn’t be effective because they don’t have access to the internet,” said Sen. Mike Testa.

The governor’s budget does reallocate state aid to 369 so-called underfunded districts, but almost 200 will lose millions in aid. Even as they struggle to buy personal protective equipment and cleaning materials, districts like Toms River, hit by a $5.3 million budget, cut will lay off 240 staffers.

“They’re buying supplies and protective equipment and a lot of overtime with regard to cleaning the facilities and preparing ventilation changes. On, and on, and on the costs are adding up and the money’s not there. The CARES Act money they received really was just a drop in the bucket compared to the needs that they really had to meet,” said Executive Director of New Jersey Association of School Administrators Richard Bozza.

Lawmakers also called out the administration for allocating so few federal CARES Act dollars to boost education.

“It’s shameful that only $150 million in CARES Act money is going to this department. The good thing is, with this budget, we have the ability to control it,” said Sen. Declan  O’Scanlon.

“I don’t know if it’s necessarily just about money. I think it’s about coordinating and getting the money to districts and getting these things in place. A big issue districts are facing is the supply chain and getting computers,”said NJ Spotlight education writer John Mooney.

Dehmer said federal FEMA money could help pay for personal protective equipment and cleaning. Some lawmakers urged the state to increase aid to all districts, but budget chair Paul Sarlo’s bottom line message was to teachers.

“Our students need you. They need our teachers. They need them to be in front of a classroom. You only can do so much on the hybrid and the remote side,” he said.

The Senate and Assembly budget committees will continue hearings into next week. Then they will start private budget deliberations under a tight Oct. 1 budget deadline.