The Jersey City Board of Education has voted 5 to 4 to adopt its $634 million 2019-2020 budget. With last-minute revenue additions, the board managed to reduce the number of employee layoffs from an estimated 750 to 150. The district was facing a $120 million budget gap, but needed to find $41 million to avoid the massive layoffs.
The budget includes $414 million in state aid, but must raise $124 million through local taxes. A 2 percent increase in the school tax levy, adding about $12 million in revenues to the budget, is less than the $40 – 50 million potential increase the district was facing.
Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas said most of the layoffs were averted because the school district also obtained a guarantee from Jersey City municipal government to transfer $27 million in collected payroll taxes. Up until May 13, the city was only going to give the district $13 million, even though the payroll tax is supposed to completely fund education.
Thomas also proposed the sale or lease of the Central Office building, near the West Side Avenue terminus of the Hudson Bergen Light Rail, for an estimated $6 million.
Thomas blamed the budget shortfall on a revised state school funding formula that reduced state aid this year by nearly $30 million, as well under funding over the last decade that has shortchanged the district by as much as $75 million more each year.
The layoffs and new budget go into effect on July 1.
“The JCBOE’s all encompassing approach of operations efficiencies, eliminating waste, legislative advocacy, legal challenges, and local tax increase carried the day by approving a $634 million budget with instructional jobs protected from proposed layoffs,” Thomas said after the vote. “The JCBOE will continue to lead from the front taking this year’s budget in the continuum of the next three years targeting a fully funded budget of $1 billion in 3 years to afford a through and efficient education to the 33,000 children we serve.”
In a meeting attended by hundreds of people, not everybody was pleased. School Trustee Matt Schapiro voted against the budget.
“It is important to remember that unless we want to continue to see cuts like those proposed tonight, we must address the lack of local funding,” he said. “The city is not paying its fair share into the schools and for whatever reason, this board refuses to raise the revenue necessary to fund the programs our children need; they won’t fund the labor contracts we have negotiated with our employees. We are consciously not funding our schools. This may be good politics for you or for the mayor and council of this city. But what do you think is going to happen to the students of this district?”
He said raising taxes each year at the current rate will not make up the difference in the annual budget.
“We can raise the school tax levy at the level proposed this year every year for the next 20 years and our school finances will never catch up,” Schapiro said. “Whack a mole strategy will not work. Athletics is getting cut? We’ll find the money for that. Art and music, we’ll find money for that. Teachers getting cut, we’ll lay off more of their support staff, who are just as important.”
Some critics claim the district always had the ability to raise funds to save jobs.
“You missed your opportunity when you failed to raise the school tax levy. That window closed to the detriment of hundreds of employees who now are uncertain about their employment going into the spring and summer,” said Brigid D’Souza, a member of JC Together. “They should be going into their summer having a break from a hard work year that we parents see day in and day out. We see it.”
JC Together members have been pushing to have the district use its ability to raise taxes rather than lay off needed workers. While this budget increases local taxes 2 percent, state law would allow the board to raise them more.
Dr. Jill Josephson, also of JC Together, said the Jersey City municipal budget has a surplus of $35 million which should be dedicated to the district to help avert layoffs and other cuts.
Councilman James Solomon, who also attended the board meeting, said he supports giving schools funds the city has obtained through various legal settlements, but he’s uncomfortable with transferring money from the municipal budget to the schools.
“They are an autonomous body,” he said. “We do not have a say into how that money gets spent, yet we’re accountable for it. Last week, the board approved a labor contract. As an outsider, I have no idea if that was a good contract or not.”
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