Over the past five years, school districts in New Jersey have been learning to live with less state aid. Most are still expected to get less next year than they got five years ago, according to Department of Education data and a review by the state Office of Legislative Services.
Now, some legislators and education advocates are trying to force the education commissioner to recalculate next year’s state aid based on the state School Funding Reform Act formula. They are also trying to get the Legislature to put more money in the budget for schools.
Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed 2014-15 budget increases the almost $8 billion allocated to schools by less than $37 million for all 577 school districts. The proposed aid amounts were not calculated using the SFRA formula but awarded on the basis of enrollment at $20 more per student.
A joint resolution sponsored largely by Democratic members of the Assembly Education Committee would require the state to recalculate the aid using the formula within 30 days of its passage. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, said he will also be lobbying for a 5 percent increase of $400 million for schools, which he admits will be difficult but says is long overdue.
Sciarra said when schools held April budget elections it was difficult to make major changes to state aid once the governor introduced the proposed budget. But now that most districts no longer hold elections, there is more time for the Legislature to act and districts to adjust their budgets. Districts are required to have preliminary budgets to their county Office of Education by today for review, but public hearings on them won’t be held until the end of April.
“They could do a preliminary budget, then revisit it again after the state budget is struck (by July 1)“ Sciarra said. “We know it’s difficult to find more money, but it’s been five years, and the time to do it is now. ”
School districts have been struggling since the 2010-11 school year, when the recession and lack of extra federal funds cut school aid statewide by more than $800 million. Small increases in subsequent years have not made up the losses, and almost 80 percent of all districts are still getting less state aid for 2014-15 than they got in 2009-10.
Minimal state aid increases and the 2 percent cap on property-tax increases have forced districts to trim programs and staff. Some have fared better or worse because of shifts in enrollment, costly placements for special education students, or the benefits of extra state aid from the state school choice program.
Among the districts with the biggest five-year gaps in state aid are Atlantic City, Brigantine, Linwood, Margate, Ventnor and the Wildwoods. All have found ways to save money, but officials said every year it gets harder to find new places to cut.
Linwood school Business Administrator Terry Weeks said that district plans to cut one teaching position and will eliminate six school clubs next year. She said the district also is affected by fluctuating enrollment, which has been dropping over the past few years. But the small amount of additional aid this year won’t even cover some mandated expenses.
Districts statewide got about $10 per student to help prepare for the new online state tests that start in 2015. Linwood got about $8,000.
“But just updating the wireless in one school is $40,000,” Weeks said. The district’s state aid for 2014-15 is about $450,000 less than it was in in 2009-10.
For small districts, even small changes can have a huge impact. North Wildwood Business Administrator John Hansen said fewer students are going to Wildwood High School, so they will save money on tuition, but out-of-district placements for several special education students will increase costs that will likely require an increase in property taxes.
North Wildwood’s state aid for 2014-15 is about $336,000 less than it was in 2009-10.
Wildwood Business Administrator Martha Jamison said her district cut six positions this year, and there are some maintenance projects planned for next year. After four years with no tax increases, she expects to need one in 2014-15. The district’s state aid is about $500,000 below what it was five years ago. Jamison said the tax-levy increase could be almost 4 percent, using some of the cap allowance the district banked in previous years to exceed the 2 percent cap.
“The budgets have all been incredibly tight,” Jamison said. “I really worried about having a deficit last year, but we made it. And I can’t reinstate anything we’ve cut.”
Margate is also slated to get about $390,000 less in state aid than five years ago. Superintendent Theresa DeFranco and Business Administrator Susan Palaia said the closing of the Union Avenue School in 2010 helped control expenses to compensate for the aid loss, and they are not expecting a tax increase for next year.
“There was that one bad year, but then it leveled off,” Palaia said. She said enrollment was dropping but has stabilized, and district officials are planning some repairs on the remaining schools.
Sciarra said by not running the state formula and calculating adequacy budgets showing what districts should be spending, it is impossible for the public to know whether their district is spending wisely or whether the state aid allocations are equitable.
“We have to get the formula run as an initial first step so districts know where they stand,” he said. “Right now, all the stress is on property taxes.”
Contact Diane D’Amico:
State aid comparison
Chart shows a sampling of local districts with the largest gaps in state aid from 2009-10 to the 2014-15 proposed state budget.
District FY2010 aid FY2015 aid Change
Atlantic City $20,999,441 $17,701,554 -16%
Brigantine $3,054,326 $2,291,507 -25%
Linwood $2,025,182 $1,571,925 -22%
Margate $935,752 $546,380 -42%
Ventnor $2,556,468 $2,088,885 -18%
Cape May Vo-Tech $1,731,412 $1,382,814 -20%
North Wildwood $1,022,788 $666,740 -34%
Wildwood $5,690,955 $5,185,220 -9%
Wildwood Crest $761,265 $656,345 -14%
Source: N.J. Department of Education, N.J. Office of Legislative Services