The Jersey City Board of Education approved the adoption of the preliminary 2021-2022 $814.1 million budget, a roughly $77.5 million increase from last year’s budget.
According to Business Administrator Regina Robinson, these funds would come from dwindling state aid, federal aid, the payroll tax estimated at about &86 million, and a roughly 47 percent increase in the local tax levy.
The tax levy would be set at about $278 million, including $85 million from the Levy Bank Cap.
By state law, this tax levy is subject to a two-percent cap, but this isn’t a hard cap because if a district doesn’t raise taxes as much as it is allowed to in a given year, it can hold on to the unused funds in a Levy Cap Bank and use it later.
The owner of a home with an average assessed property value of about $461,925 would pay an estimated $993 in school taxes for the year under the preliminary budget.
Originally, Superintendent of the Jersey City Public School District Franklin Walker presented an $827.4 million budget, but after discussions with the board, the budget was cut, reducing the taxpayers’ school taxes from an estimated $1,168 to $993.
These reductions come primarily from the elimination of $10 million in investments in technology, a $2.5 million investment in interactive smartboards, and reductions in operation and program investments, including the emergency repair fund for the district’s facilities, some of which are more than 100 years old.
Funding cuts continue
In 2018, the state approved the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 changing the way state aid to school districts is calculated and distributed.
Under the updated funding formula, the state Department of Education now allocates more money to districts that were considered underfunded by the previous formula, while gradually reducing aid to districts like Jersey City that were identified as being overfunded.
According to Walker, more than seven years since the SFRA was implemented in 2018, the Jersey City Public School’s state aid is estimated to be decreased by more than $240.5 million.
To help combat the loss of state aid, the city council approved an ordinance in 2018 imposing a 1 percent payroll tax on non-Jersey City residents’ employers to benefit Jersey City schools.
But this year, while the city originally announced $86 million in payroll taxes would go to the district, this was decertified due to the pandemic and its impact on business.
Now the city has certified only $65 million.
Board members noted aid from the American Rescue Plan could help lower the levy in the future, but the district does not yet know how much money it will receive.
Board President Mussab Ali said the funds could be estimated at $70 million or $90 million, but the Department of Education has not yet released figures.
The city has already been allotted $145.8 million from the American Rescue Plan.
Trustee Alexander Hamilton suggested that the city use the federal funds to help the district and “make the payroll tax whole.” Then the city could collect the money from delinquent businesses.
Trustee Lorenzo Richardson called for an audit of the payroll tax stating that the process is not transparent.
Board members noted that the city just announced plans to redo the Newark Avenue Pedestrian Plaza and investments into the rehabilitation of a historic theater in Journal Square, calling on the city to invest more into the district.
“Do you want to invest in the future and the lives of children or just go and put plazas up so people can go sit in the sunshine?” said Trustee Marilyn Roman calling on residents to call their city representatives to request more funding for schools.
“At the end of the day they need to understand these children are their responsibility as well,” said Ali. “You can’t just be investing in luxury goods as a city and then turn around and say it’s wasteful spending for us to be hiring guidance counselors. I mean it’s shameful really. We are investing in textbooks for our kids and being told ‘how dare you raise taxes.’ That’s insane”
During the nearly five-hour meeting, residents and students called to urge the board to adopt the preliminary budget.
“I’ve never had a fully funded school district,” said fifth-grader Cassidy Gormley, noting that her school eliminated math coaches several years ago.
“We deserve to have an education that is fully funded,” she said.
“I’m calling to remind the board that you are responsible for adopting a fully funded school budget,” said resident Guy Patton. “The children of Jersey City deserve what the state constitution has promised: a thorough and efficient education … the kids of Jersey City are just as deserving of a great education as anyone else, and you need to stop asking them to do more with less.”
Councilman At-large Rolando Lavarro called into the meeting, stating that he would like to start a committee of officials from the city and the board of education to help find a funding solution.
“We have to take the bull by the horns and figure a way out of this together,” he said.
The board adopted the preliminary budget with a 5-4 vote. Board President Ali and Trustees Richardson, Roman, Gina Verdibello, and Gerald Lyons voted to adopt the budget, while Vice President Lekendrick Shar and Trustees Hamilton, Noemi Velazquez, and Joan Terrell-Paige voted against the measure.
The budget now awaits the approval of the County Superintendent. Once approved, the school board will review and make changes to the budget before it is finalized and sent to the state in May.