It came as no surprise that school aid was cut for the 2010-11 school year, but the extent of the cuts were deeper than expected. And school officials are now scrambling to meet state deadlines to put together budgets for the April 20 election.
A survey by the New Jersey School Boards Association shows the most common ways districts respond to cuts immediately is to cut programs and lay off workers — and reports of staffing and program cuts have been widespread.
That may only be the beginning: As district officials, school boards and unions review their financial situation, they may look for ways other than property taxes to bring back programs or save jobs by September.
Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, put out a statement saying districts are likely to respond to the cuts in five key ways:
Privatizing services such as busing, custodial, nursing and cafeteria.
Charging parents fees for extracurricular activities such as sports, clubs and field trips.
Decreasing programs that are popular but not critical, such as junior varsity programs and some language, art and music programs.
Increasing class sizes as teaching positions are eliminated to save money.
Diminishing support services, including guidance, nursing and administrative positions.
Privatizing is criticized by unions because private companies generally pay less and offer fewer, if any, health insurance benefits. But that argument is getting less sympathy from property-tax-paying homeowners facing layoffs and benefit cuts of their own.
Charging parents fees for services has never really caught on in New Jersey. The NJSBA survey found about 100 of the school districts that responded said they plan to start charging activity fees as a way to save programs. Only about 20 districts charge such fees, usually for athletics, with a waiver for low-income students.
Some subsidized after-school programs already charge a small fee, but administrators will have to determine whether programs can succeed if they are funded solely by a parent-funded plan. Parents often say they will pay but don’t sign up, leaving programs without enough students to make their budget.
About a third of the districts in the NJSBA survey also said they are considering subcontracting some services or expanding already privatized programs. A survey from fall 2009 found 84 percent of districts that responded have privatized some services as a way to save money — usually on transportation, cafeteria and maintenance. Other districts have expanded into special education services, security and technology.
The proposed state budget, with almost $820 million less in school aid, still has to be approved by the Legislature. Lawmakers have already said they will consider reinstating an extra tax on people making more than $400,000 per year, which could raise between $600 million and $800 million in state revenue. Some of that money could go to schools, but legislators won’t know for sure until July 1.
How many unions will agree to the proposed one-year wage freeze is also uncertain. The NJSBA found in a sampling of 23 districts that districts would save more than $59 million if employees gave up raises for 2010-11. Those funds could be used to reinstate jobs and programs.
Districts must notify staff by May 15 if they will have a job for the next school year. Even if they will bring people back later, districts still have to write up layoff notices.
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