The Jersey City Board of Education held its first public listening session as it conducts the annual budgeting process for the school district which oversees the education of roughly 30,000 students.
According to JCBOE President Mussab Ali, the district is facing continued significant cuts in needed state funding.
“At this point, we are $57 million underfunded from the state. That’s below adequacy, the states own line, and we are expecting between an $80 to $90 million additional cut,” Ali said.
He noted that the state has underfunded the district for roughly a decade, but that it continues to address student needs.
“This district has been working on miracles honestly because we are not working on money because we don’t have the money that the state should have been providing us,“ he said.
He said the board and the district continue to rise to the challenge but that when the state changed its funding formula with the S2 bill in 2018, it “was irresponsible … in terms of abdicating their responsibility to fund our public schools.”
Last year the school board adopted a $736 million budget, raising the school tax levy from $136 million to $189 million.
Taxpayers aren’t enough
But trustees said they can’t continue to rely on taxpayers alone.
“If we were just to raise taxes $90 million, all we are doing is catching up from the hole the states about to put us in- forget the $53 million we are already in the hole for,” said Ali.
Trustee Marilyn Roman said that last year the board “bit the bullet” by choosing to raise taxes in order to properly serve the city’s children.
“Last year we had a terrible time trying to balance our budget and do all the things that are necessary for the students in our district,” said Roman. “Money isn’t everything but you can’t do much without it when you have so many children in need.”
She stressed the importance of finding a stable source of funding for the schools.
Both Ali and Trustee Gerald Lyons said they hope the three state monitors would report the district’s need for financial assistance back to the state.
State needs to step up
“We can’t fund ourselves like this,” said Lyons. “We have to get support from the state.”
Two members of the public urged the board to find ways to fully fund the district.
“You can and must propose and pass a fully funded, initial budget, one that meets the needs of our city’s children,” said Nancy Pokler of Jersey City Together.
She read a letter from Jersey City Together which hosted small group listening sessions and surveyed more than 1,000 parents and caregivers.
“The stories we have heard demand action. Our children have not had in-person learning experiences since March 2020,” she said. “When children return to their classrooms, schools will not only have to address significant learning loss, but they will also need to be equipped to support students through the traumas they have faced throughout the COVID crisis. All of this critical work requires that our schools be fully funded.”
She further stated that the state’s budget is expected to cut an estimated $83 million in state aid to the Jersey City Public School District, according to the Education Law Center and that JC Together estimates the city’s payroll tax will also deliver $20 million less in revenue next school year.
“This alone will make it imperative for you to increase local revenue significantly in next year’s budget merely to maintain current budget levels,” she said, noting that the budget is already inadequate and underfunded.
Resident Brigid D’Souza said as a parent with children who have been learning remotely in Jersey City, she knows the impact underfunding is having on her fourth-grade son.
“I see him getting lost in the calls, not because of any deficit on the teacher’s part, but just because the class size should be smaller,” she said, noting that his class has more than 30 kids.
She noted that her son would have benefited from extra support like math coaches, but they were stripped away due to budget cuts.
She too asked that the board fully fund the district.
“My hope personally is that we fund the full set of needs and don’t cut any children in this city short,” she said.