Law Group: Newark Schools 2015-16 Budget Balancing Hits Classrooms

Friday, 12 February 2016 17:01 Walter Elliott



The Newark Public Schools' erasure of a $65 million debt, which may be announced as early as the board of education's Feb. 23 meeting here at Ivy Hill Elementary School, has already garnered a mixed reaction among constituents.

NPS State District Superintendent Christopher Cerf and administrators at NPS' 2 Cedar St. Central Office, as of December, had trimmed that deficit to about $5 million. Cerf, at the board's Jan. 19 business meeting, had reported that the gap was closed. (The Jan. 22-23 blizzard had canceled the board's Jan. 26 regular meeting with scheduled classes.)

Cerf and his administrators had found the following economies to balance the 2015-16 school budget:

  • Saved $2.1 million by eliminating vacant school-level job titles.
  • Received $3.5 million from a combination of an insurance payment for the old Elliott Street School fire and extra U.S. Department of Education Title I and II program funds.
  • Kept $6.3 million by not replacing retiring or departing Central Office staff.
  • Realized $23.1 million through eliminating vacant Central Office positions and in receiving refunds from charter schools when some of the latter failed to make NJDOE-set enrollment projections.
  • Saved $25 million by reducing the 450-member Employees Without Placement pool, usually teachers who have not been lined up with certified vacancies, to 124.

Another $5 million in health insurance and other benefits saved through layoffs. (This is separate from Cerf's attempt to award an employee drug prescription plan to BeneCare, of South Jersey, which has been halted by a State Superior Court Judge Jan. 27.)

Cerf may take at least a deep breath with resolving the around $765 million 2015-16 budget - but it may be a short one.

The state-appointed superintendent said that he and his staff are anticipating a $70 million deficit to fill for the under-construction 2016-17 budget. He said, on Jan. 19, that he is considering switching health benefit plans (see BeneCare) and/or selling vacant NPS buildings.

The Education Law Center meanwhile done some of its own budget number analysis while Cerf and administrators were looking to find that last $5 million is savings. The Newark-headquartered group, both in a Dec. 1 release, and in a Feb. 6 presentation by research officer Dr. Danielle Farrie before the Abbott Leadership Institute, found that the NPS budget has several chronic conditions leading to its seemingly annual shortfalls.

First, NPS' overall budget has declined from $975 million in 2008-09 to $765 million. Much of the decrease has come from cuts in state aid - from $858 million in 2008-09 to the current $632 million - which makes up for 70 percent of the district's budget. The City of Newark's contribution, in the form of property taxes, has increased from $115 million to $140 million.

ELC research claims that the state government has not fully funded NPS according to its own Student Funding Reform Act of 2009 formula. The state's public school district should have allocated between $1.023 billion in Fiscal Year 2009 and $847 million in the current FY 2016 budget. The current shortfall is $132 million.

Second, the state aid decline seems to correspond to the decline in overall student enrollment, which has gone from 45,000 in FY 09 to 34,000 this year. Using the SFRA per pupil tuition formula, individual spending has declined from $21,179 in FY 09 to $18,208 in FY 15 (latest available figure).

ELC, however, found that the number of special education and/or English language learners have risen. The group found that ELL student population have grown between 14 and 17 percent from FY 09-15 and special education students' ranks have gone from nine to 11 percent FY 09-15.

The bulk of the "missing" 11,000 students, or nine percent, have enrolled in some 25 charter schools in Newark or receiving Newark students. Newark, as a sending school district, also sends 90 percent tuition per student to each receiving charter school by state law.

The growth of NJDOE chartered schools have ballooned from $60 million in payments in FY 09 to $225 million in FY 15. The latter number makes up roughly one fifth to one quarter of NPS' overall budget.

Cerf, with the now-resolved 2015-16 budget, had pledged that he had avoided making cuts that would affect classroom instruction. ELC, however, factored in the cuts of various mid-level school employees, from classroom aides and cafeteria workers to department heads and truancy officers, made by Cerf predecessor Cami Anderson. (Anderson resigned July 1, 2015.)

NPS students, in ELC's eyes, need more services but have to cope with less resources.

Dr. Farrie, before an ALI class of 45 here on Rutgers-Newark campus, presented the following ELC recommendations:

1. Have the state government fully fund NPS.

2. Have the City of Newark raise property taxes "up to allowable limits." (Newark, like all other municipalities, have a state-mandated two percent property tax increase cap.)

3. Have state Education Commissioner David Hespe order Newark-based charter schools to return any surplus above two percent back to NPS.

Cerf and the NPS school board are to draft a 2016-17 proposed budget towards a late March public hearing.

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