No mass layoffs, taxes to increase under $915M Newark schools budget

By Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
on April 30, 2017

NEWARK -- The Newark school district will not impose massive layoffs and instead hire 109 new employees under its proposed $915 million budget for next year. 

The new hires include 67 teachers and school support staff such as guidance counselors, social workers and security guards. 

"It is a budget built to support the district. It has put us on back on what is a strong foundation for future years," business administrator Valerie Wilson said during a public meeting on the budget this month.

The School Advisory Board approved the budget last week, days before a school board election and as the district readies to take full rein of its schools. The district has been under state control for more than 20 years. 

Under the budget, the school portion of city residents' tax bill will increase by an average of $118 a year for an average assessed home of $175,000. That means on average, residents will pay $1,864 in school taxes, compared to $1,746 the year prior.

Earlier this year, the district faced a $30 million deficit but was able to whittle that down by selling empty buildings, signing a cheaper lease for a new central office, receiving special support aid from the state and using "banked cap" to raise the local tax levy beyond the 2 percent state-mandated limit.  

Banked cap allows a municipality or district to increase taxes by more than 2 percent if taxes were not increased in prior years up to the 2 percent maximum. 

Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf said putting together the budget was "a colossal effort" given the flat funding the district is expected to receive from the state. 

Cerf said only about $130 million of the district's budget comes from local taxes, the rest -- $742 million -- comes from the state.

He said flat funding amid rising health care costs and salaries means the district is spending less per student.

Where is the money going?

The district's dollars will largely be spent on salaries ($397 million) and benefits ($123 million). Another $242 million will be redirected toward charter schools, which receive money for every student they enroll.

The budget also calls for a $3.7 million to reduce class sizes and $3 million for a new science curriculum. The district said it restored its "rainy day funds," to levels required by the state. The district also plans to reallocate money from the high schools to the elementary schools to more equitably distribute dollars.

Members of the public, however, expressed concern about cuts in their individual school budgets.  

"We already don't serve our students well enough," said Brandon Rippey, a teacher at Science High, which he said will receive about $165,000 less next year. 

Wilson said the Legislature still had to approve the state budget, which in turn, could impact the district's funding. 

"Until that is complete, we're still living in a world of uncertainty," she said.

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