Four weeks before the April 27 school budget elections, NJ Spotlight will travel New Jersey to provide occasional snapshots of how local communities are grappling with the costs of public education in what remains a fragile economy.
There is no one unifying story, not in the school budgets being drafted and debated by local communities, many as we speak. Unlike the budget deliberations of last year, when steep state aid reductions left schools almost uniformly looking at cuts, the prospects run the gamut.
Gov. Chris Christie has proposed a slight restoration of last year's aid cuts, and that has enabled some districts to restore programs as well. Others are rethinking how they are doing business and providing an education. And for still others, there is little solace in a new year, with more severe cuts and dire warnings to come.
We start with two of the extremes, both in the northern half of the state, one on the western edge that is not just surviving but providing some relief, another in what may seem a world away where there appears little relief in sight.
It’s been a tough couple of years for this community in western Warren County, where a soured economy and state aid cuts has left this district of 1,900 students and four schools with little cushion. After eight straight years of winning school budget votes, the last two were rejected.
Altogether, this year, that has meant 20 fewer positions on the payroll, including coaches, supervisors, teachers and secretaries, some laid off, others by attrition. It wasn’t Armageddon for the district, like for some, but it took its toll on class sizes, after-school programs and the support services that can make a difference.
"It was a significant loss in terms of our curriculum development," said Robert Gratz, the superintendent. "We eliminated our whole supervisors association."
This year should be a little better, with no cuts planned at all. And with a 6.3 percent increase in state aid from Trenton, the district has proposed a $29.6 million budget that would actually provide a 2.8 percent reduction in the tax levy. That amounts to a $44 reduction for the average taxpayer in a home assessed at $285,000 and paying about $3,800 a year in school taxes, officials said.
With a spending side still going up over 4 percent, the help has come from a few places. The big one is $182,000 in federal emergency aid for those lost jobs this year that the district banked for next year, helping to save two jobs. The district also had surplus left over from this year that it will carry over. Still there are a few other cautions, including a teachers contract that expires in June. The two sides are at least talking.
Is that enough to end the two-year losing streak and get back on the winning track, at the polls, Gratz is making no predictions, not any more.
"In this climate, I don’t think there are any guarantees anymore," he said.
One would think Newark schools would be catching a break these days, with a billionaire offering up a $100 million gift to improve the public education system, a charismatic mayor vowing to match it, and much of the nation watching and hoping the best for New Jersey’s largest and, arguably, most troubled city.
Then last week, the district’s top administrators -- all operating under the oversight of Trenton in this state-run district -- held a public hearing where they announced the district still faced a $10 million budget gap and more than 400 additional jobs could be eliminated next year. That on top of hundreds lost this year.
And that in a proposed budget that is perilously close to $1 billion a year, or $970,404,864 to be exact. (The district actually came closer in 2010, when it hit $995 million, before dropping down last year.)
The proposed budget, which only needs the state’s approval, is a 2 percent increase over last year’s and calls for a 3 percent increase in the local tax levy, staying within the maximum new caps set by Gov. Christie, when allowing for health and pension costs.
Still, the questions in the ensuing weeks and months will mount, to be sure, on where does all that money go at more than $17,000 per student -- depending on how one does the math.
But it certainly appears one main culprit remains an enrollment that continues to drop. Many students are attending charter schools that are now the center of much controversy in a district where Christie wants to expand them.
Newark will spend more on tuition for charter schools ($124 million) than four Hackettstowns combined. More than 9,000 of the city’s 48,000 public school students -- close to one in five -- are slated to attend the 20 charters that will serve Newark children next year.
"We reaching a point of no return as people keep leaving," said Junius Williams, a longtime advocate in the city and now with the Abbott Leadership Council at Rutgers University. "Even if the state gets rich as anything, we’ll always be laying off people."
There is some potential for relief with the state Supreme Court about to decide the latest round of Abbott v. Burke on whether additional aid needs to be afforded all districts in the wake of this year’s cuts. Among those who would benefit most are large urban districts like Newark, where there are the largest concentrations of poor and at-risk students.
But when and if that comes is anyone’s guess, and that has left some other advocates looking more to the short term.
"Even if we get $3 million back or whatever, I’m scared," said Wilhemina Holder, a parent advocate. "I’m wondering what these class sizes will look like after another year of this."
"And at Weequahic High School," she said, "they are talking about three security guards, reduced from seven. That’s the stuff that hurts."