Accelify Blog

New Jersey Schools Brace for Cuts

April 5, 2010

Public schools in Montclair, N.J., would lay off as many as 70 teachers, including reading and math specialists, and would no longer offer French and Spanish classes in elementary grades.

Westfield would not be able to buy library books or replace aging computers, and a popular middle school tradition — the fall play — could disappear.

Cresskill could see class sizes climb to 35 students in middle and high schools, it may charge students a fee to play high school sports, and it could eliminate middle school athletic teams.

The three districts and others like them across New Jersey have long attracted families because they offer some of the best public education in the state. But now many of these top school systems are preparing to reduce the academic and extracurricular opportunities that have long set them apart.

Gov. Christopher J. Christie, striving to close a budget deficit that he says is about $11 billion, has proposed reducing direct aid to nearly 600 districts by an amount equal to as much as 5 percent of their operating budgets. Overall school aid for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, would fall to $10.3 billion, from $11.1 billion this fiscal year.

The governor’s proposal would eliminate state classroom money for 59 districts, including Ridgewood, Millburn and Glen Ridge, though state education officials said they would still get money to help pay expenses like teachers’ pensions and Social Security benefits, special-education placements and debt service.

Mr. Christie’s proposal still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled Legislature. But many schoo l districts are bracing for the worst, given the state’s dire financial condition and the reluctance to raise taxes on residents already facing tax burdens that are among the nation’s highest.

The New Jersey School Boards Association, which surveyed school officials about the state aid cuts, found that 268 districts would lay off teachers and that 185 would make cuts to their education programs.

In addition, 206 districts said they would reduce the number of extracurricular activities, and 96 would charge students an activity fee for the first time.

Districts are also seeking to save on teachers’ salaries and benefits, with 195 considering reopening contracts with local teachers’ unions. An additional 265 are already at the bargaining table. As an incentive, Mr. Christie this week announced a proposal to give additional state aid to districts that negotiate salary freezes.

The school boards association received responses from 323 of the state’s 588 districts about how they were preparing for the possible loss of state money.

“Districts are walking a very fine line,” said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the association. “They have to preserve as much of the school program as possible without shifting too much of the burden over to the property-tax payer.”

While the cuts would affect virtually every district, they have provoked particular anger in communities that have long promoted the quality of their schools. Many of those districts have been chipping away at their high-caliber programs in recent years, caught between local opposition to higher property taxes and a shrinking share of state aid.

For example, Westfield, with 6,275 students, would lose $4.2 million, or 90 percent, of its direct state aid.

“People are really upset,” said Anne Riegel, a mother of two who said she moved to Westfield because of its schools. “What it seems like is the schools will provide substantially less, and our taxes will still go up with the governor’s cuts.”

Margaret Dolan, the Westfield schools superintendent, said the district was trying to find savings wherever possible: buying fewer supplies like paper and pencils; putting the school calendar online; and charging students $100 a year to participate in high school sports or clubs.

Even so, Westfield would have to lay off as many as 30 employees, including up to 17 teachers.

“We took a scalpel and we carved and carved, but now we’re down to the bone,” Dr. Dolan said. “Clearly, the state has no interest in either the taxpayers or the students in the public schools in Westfield.”

Cresskill would lose more than $1.1 million, nearly 95 percent, of its state aid. And the remaining amount, $63,066, would have to be returned to the state to help reduce the debt service on money that the state had borrowed to finance school construction projects, district officials said.

“We are all absolutely stunned that our entire state aid is being taken away,” said Loretta Bellina, the Cresskill schools superintendent. “We understand what the governor is trying to do, and everyone has to step up to the plate, but you can’t resolve this in 60 seconds or less.”

Cresskill, with 1,750 students, has proposed increasing its property tax by 4 percent this year — compared with 3.4 percent the year before — to offset about half of the loss in state aid. The rest would come from laying off up to 10 teachers and classroom aides, increasing class sizes and cutting some extracurricular activities.

The West Wind sor-Plainsboro Regional School District, with 9,821 students, is planning to cover a loss in state aid of more than $7.5 million, a roughly 71 percent reduction, by outsourcing its building and grounds maintenance, which would eliminate 102 custodial jobs.

Teachers and administrators have agreed to give up salary increases for three months, as well as other benefits, and at least five retiring administrators would not be replaced.

In Montclair, school officials say that they will save their core academic programs, even if they have to sacrifice things like school librarians, reading and math specialists, an R.O.T.C. program, the high school gymnastics team for girls and foreign language instruction at elementary schools.

Montclair, with 6,700 students, would lose more than $5.4 million in state aid, a reduction of nearly 61 percent. As a result, district officials have proposed something that has not happened in more than a decade — reducing the district’s budget. Usually, Montclair’s school budget grows by about 4 percent each year; this time, the budget might be reduced by 4.9 percent.

“We’re trying to do things more efficiently and more creatively,” said Frank Alvarez, the Montclair schools superintendent, adding that the district found a way to save an extended day program at a middle school by staggering teachers’ schedules.

“We are pulling together, and we are going to make it work, but whenever you see reductions of this size, of course they’re going to have an impact,” Dr. Alvarez said.