Until this year, public schools in New Jersey were almost recession-proof. Contracts still provided employees comfortable annual raises, averaging just more than 4 percent. Gov. Jon S. Corzine, with a $1 billion infusion of federal stimulus funds, was able to maintain school aid for 2009-10 and even increase it slightly for the lowest-spending school districts such as Hamilton Township, a moderate-income K-8 district where two sprawling schools sit minutes from Hamilton Mall.
The district said it used its stimulus money carefully, investing $150,000 in technology and curriculum for a new reading lab that special-education supervisor Glenn Martins said will help students for years to come.
“We’re no frills, but it worked,” said Superintendent Michelle Cappelluti, adding that school property taxes had not increased in two years. “We were in good shape.”
Spending in public schools statewide continued to increase throughout the recession. The 2010 annual Comparative Spending Guide, released by the state Department of Education last week, shows the average cost per student for educational costs this year is $13,835, a 4 percent increase from 2008-09, twice the rate of inflation. This year’s cost is also nearly 20 percent higher than in 2006, when the comparative per-student cost was $11,554. The costs listed do not include non-educational items such as transportation and construction.
The funding cushion that spared schools from the recession’s worst effects is now gone. With no stimulus aid to fall back on, and a massive $2 billion deficit, Gov. Chris Christie cut school aid for 2010-11, effectively eliminating the $1 billion districts received last year.
“There is no ‘son of stimulus,’” said John Donahue, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials. “Last year, the money probably did save jobs. But it was just one-time revenue.”
Suddenly, items that were once seen as essential are now expendable. Districts across New Jersey are cutting after-school programs, school trips, nonvarsity athletics, reading and math coaches, guidance counselors, assistant principals, classroom aides and teachers.
Even with the extra aid, Hamilton Township is spending just $10,367 per student on educational costs this year, among the lowest in the state. The district ranks 660 among 687 public and charter schools. The average teacher salary is $46,589, also far below the state K-8 median teacher salary of $56,688.
Superintendent Cappelluti hoped the district may be spared a big aid cut for 2010-11 because it spends so little. The district already lost almost $1 million when Christie withheld aid for this year in February. But when the aid figures were released March 17, Hamilton’s funding was reduced by another $2 million, or 5 percent of its budget.
“It’s awful now,” she said.
Last Tuesday, Cappelluti stood before a solemn crowd at the William Davies Middle School library as she and business administrator Barbara Prettyman explained at the public budget hearing what would be cut to save $2 million.
“In the 1970s, my dad fought for this school to be built,” said Cappelluti, who also taught at the school and started the district preschool program before becoming superintendent. “This has been arduous and painful.”
In a 16-page presentation, they doled out the bad news in a pattern repeated throughout the state. Every item touched someone in the audience.
Preschool will remain in Hamilton, but there will be only eight half-day classes, not 14, saving $400,000 in staffing costs. There will be no preschool busing.
Parent Greg Smith made a plea for preschool. He has one child in the program now, and hopes to get his second child in next year.
“We are very pleased with the program,” he said. “We are worried that our second child may not get that opportunity.”
All assemblies, field trips, athletic and extracurricular activities are gone, saving almost $267,000. Supplies will be cut by $50,000.
Parent Kevin Neelb said the after-school program staff helped his son improve his grades from Cs to As and Bs.
“I’d pay for it,” the working single father said after the meeting, something he may suggest to try to save the program.
A couple of retirees won’t be replaced, including a social worker. Seven teachers will be cut. Two administrators, two secretaries and all classroom aides, or paraprofessionals, will go to part time.
Support staff such as counselors, librarians, health services and social workers have been the fastest growing expense statewide, increasing 6 percent in the past year. Administrative costs showed the smallest increase, just 2.4 percent.
Cutting the paraprofessionals’ hours will save about $110,000 in salaries, but more than $719,000 in benefits in Hamilton Township. A paraprofessional’s benefits may actually cost more than his or her salary.
Benefits now make up an average 28 percent of payroll costs, state spending guide data show, up from 18 percent a decade ago. A new state law will require all school district employees pay 1.5 percent of their salary toward health benefits costs, but that won’t help paraprofessional Jackie Tummon right now.
“I’ve got melanoma,” she told the school board. “I need to be checked every three months. I need my benefits. I’ve worked here for 17 years and I feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back.”
Outside the meeting, Tummon said she wanted the school board to realize that the cuts are not just numbers.
“We don’t do this for the salary,” she said. “We do it for the kids, and for the benefits.”
In Hamilton Township, the cost for family health coverage next year will be $16,599 per employee, a 162 percent increase from $6,634 a decade ago.
Hamilton Township Education Association President Diane Brunetti said they will consider a wage freeze next year if it would help save jobs. Cappelluti said administrators have also discussed a freeze, and will likely go along if the teachers agree.
“It has to be everyone to really make a difference,” she said. Both groups are negotiating new contracts.
Brunetti also wanted the district to fund the budget all the way to its cap, something the board resisted because it would raise the property tax rate more than the 5 cents they are already asking residents to approve. The final operating budget proposed for 2010-11 is $2.2 million less than this year’s spending plan.
Brunetti said outside the meeting that getting voters to pass the budget is crucial to avoid even more cuts.
“I am upset they didn’t go to cap,” she said. “But we can’t let this budget go down. We have to get the message out.”
That is one thing she, the board and Cappelluti can agree on.
“We were spoiled the last two years,” Cappelluti said during a visit to the reading lab last week. “We were able to do a lot with that extra aid, and we were always grateful for it.”
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