Newark Schools Still Fighting Deficit

Monday, 28 September 2015 14:52 Walter Elliott



Newark Public Schools State District Superintendent Christopher Cerf had some news - both good and bad - regarding its current 2015-16 budget here Sept. 22.

Cerf - before most of the NPS Board of Education, Newark TV 78 viewers and a First Avenue School audience of 110 - said that he and his administrators had whittled the $63.4 million deficit down to $15 million.

The former New Jersey Commissioner of Education, in a one hour presentation and question session, explained how he went to the Central Office at 2 Cedar St. to reduce the shortfall by $48.4 million.

The bad news is that $15 million in cuts and/or additional income are needed to close the gap on a roughly $735 million budget as was introduced by predecessor Cami Anderson's staff here in May. Cerf, board members and some of the 10 public speakers fielded questions about future cuts and for a five year strategic plan for New Jersey's largest public school district.

Some of the back-and-fourth between the board and Cerf involved whether to hold a separate public hearing on the 2015-16 budget.

The board, before calling it a night, advocated for the special meeting to be held on or before Oct. 15. The panel also passed a resolution calling for administrators to follow competitive bidding procedures on contracts over $40,000 - regardless if the vendor or contractor has had prior dealings with the district.

"On July 1, just before I got here (July 8), the deficit was $63.4 million," said Cerf, who also made some copies of his computer slide presentation available in English and Spanish. "Thanks to the hard work by our administrators, department heads and the board's finance committee, we were able to identify $48.4 million in cuts."

Those reductions are:

  • Saving $25 million by placing 260 Employees Without Placement Staff in vacant positions.
  • Clearing $17.1 million in Central Office non-salary accounts.
  • Eliminating $4.3 million worth of vacant Central Office positions.
  • Reducing $2 million worth of unaffiliated Central Office Staff. 

Cerf, when asked if the EWPS pool created by Anderson will be drained, said it will be further reduced but never completely phased out.

"We've gone down from 429 people in EWPS in September 2014 to 169 on Sept. 21," said Cerf. "About 100 employees need to be (state) certified or have certification in specific subjects like mathematics and science."

The other 69 or so remaining in EWPS, explained Cerf, have tenure or disciplinary charges against them.

"We have a team who is expediting their cases for a 'speedy trial,'" said Cerf. "We're trying to close cases where the employees have been in EWPS a year or longer. Given a school district or our size, we'll always have some employees outside of the classroom for student safety or on tenure charges."

Cerf, towards the end of his presentation, added that the $48.4 million of economies did not come from classroom staffing or supplies. The superintendent added that he could not guarantee that he can keep from sparing the classroom in future budget cut rounds.

When asked by board members how the budget got a $63.4 million hole, Cerf said that "my predecessor and staff made three critical assumptions that turned out not to be true:"

  • Anderson would be getting a "last hired, first fired" employment waiver from Acting NJDOE Commissioner David Hespe. That waiver has not been granted.
  • The number of tenured or veteran employees who would leave the district was "seriously overestimated."
  • The cost of keeping 429 EWPS employees in the pool was "seriously overestimated."

"I was a history teacher, not a finance teacher," said Cerf. "I understand that budgets are drafted with certain assumptions. The $63.4 million is less than (ten) percent of a nearly $1 billion budget. Still, we do need to have the budget balanced by the end of the year."

By year's end, it is presumed to be Dec. 31. NPS runs on a July 1-June 30 budget, coinciding with the State's - which prompted several speakers to ask if there will be enough money to keep the schools open through June.

Board member Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, citing Cerf's e-mail to school principals to spend only 25 percent of their building's budgets earlier this month, declared "We're in a crisis."

"There's a misinterpretation of that communication to the principals," responded Cerf. "They were placeholders while we worked with the budget. If principals needed to go over their placeholder for additional teachers or textbooks, they apply for waivers."

Cerf added that "if School Board Administrator Valerie Wilson was here, she'd tell you that waivers have been granted." Wilson was said to be out-of-the-country, visiting a relative.

Baskerville-Richardson and Board President Ariagna Perello asked Cerf to create a budget committee and a five-year NPS strategic plan. They cited that Anderson used predecessor Dr. Clifford Janey's strategic plan throughout her four years here.

"Is the budget committee different from the (board's) finance committee?" asked Cerf. "What's my responsibility in creating one? I've been reading Dr. Janey's plan."

Cerf said that he has created "a separate team" whose focus will be "on the district budget the next year or two or beyond."

Board Vice President Marquis-Aquil Lewis gave a partial comparison of the Central Office's top positions from Superintendent Marion Bolden through Anderson-Cerf in a claim of administrative top-heaviness."

"With all due respect, I disagree with that," replied Cerf to the Finance Committee chairman. "I'll supply you a detailed organizational chart."

One floor speaker asked if Cerf, as superintendent, reached out to the non-profit foundations to help with the budget deficit.

Cerf maintained that holding a budget hearing as part of a board meeting would be efficient "since the meeting was scheduled and you'd have the audience here." Perello countered that having an exclusive budget hearing would keep its focus and would not lengthen "a four-hour meeting."

The board, with Crystal Fonseca abstaining and Donald Jackson absent, approved holding a separate budget hearing.

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