With a 6-3 vote the Jersey City Board of Education has adopted its final $814.1 million budget for the 2021-2022 academic year.
The budget represents 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 – which the district assumed would be $86 million this year instead of the certified $65 million – and a roughly 47 percent increase in the local school tax levy.
The tax levy would be set at about $278 million, including $85 million from the Levy Bank Cap.
This means that 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.
Only three residents and parents spoke at the meeting, all of whom were in favor of the budget and members of Jersey City Together, a coalition that advocates for affordable housing and education.
“We are heartened that the proposed 2021-2022 district budget moves the district toward full, sustainable funding for the first time in more than a decade,” said Nancy Pokler before the vote. “We urge you to pass the proposed budget, an essential first step to address our district’s long-standing funding crisis and related, pressing equity concerns that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
State 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 Superintendent of the Jersey City Public School District Franklin Walker, this year the district lost about $152 million in state aid and over the next three years the district is projected to lose another $250 million.
“Our focus is how to best meet the needs of the children,” said Walker. “The district still lacks revenue and budget stability, which adds fiscal uncertainty when added to the pandemic impact and that 80 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged. Our only option to secure the necessary funding to submit a balanced budget that meets the students’ needs is a tax levy.”
‘Gun to my head’
During the board discussion, Trustee Gerald Lyons questioned if monies from the American Rescue Plan could be used to offset the levy as discussed in previous board meetings but according to Robinson, those funds are restricted.
Further, Board President Mussab Ali said that while he has been in contact with the state they still have not yet announced when the funds would be released or how much the district would receive.
He estimated that the district, which educates roughly 30,000 students across 42 schools including early childhood centers, would receive roughly $90 million.
Lyons asked that the board adopt a resolution at the next meeting stating that the American Rescue Plan funds would be saved and used next academic year in order to help the district offset future tax increases.
“We raised the taxpayers last year, we are raising the taxpayers again this year, so I think if we get this money it should be put aside for next year to help the budget then,” said Lyons noting that years ago when the district had money the then board spent “like drunken sailors” instead of saving.
Trustee Alexander Hamilton said he felt pressure to raise taxes year after year.
“We are going to be in the hole again next year by about $100 million,” Hamilton said. “I’ve been on this school board for about a year and a half and I’ve felt like there’s been a gun to my head every year to basically raise people’s taxes… I really want a long-term solution regarding this budget, and I am really sort of tired of this being the only solution that we have because it should not be the only answer that we have to raise the levy all the time.”
Several trustees said they supported the budget but noted that the city needed to provide them with monies from the payroll tax, which at the time of its enactment was estimated to provide the district with roughly $100 million per year.
Last week, Mayor Steven Fulop said the payroll tax was flawed noting that there was no means for the city to enforce the practically “optional” tax which this year amounts to roughly $65 million.
Trustee Joan Terrell-Paige said the city needs to “step up.”
“I’m supporting this budget,” said Terrell-Paige. “We need every cent in this budget plus more. If the city is not going to step up and do the responsible thing, then this board needs to take them to court. Enough of playing around with the education and of the future of the children of Jersey City.”
Ultimately, the board adopted the budget with a 6-3 vote with Board President Ali and Trustees Lorenzo Richardson, Marilyn Roman, Gina Verdibello, Gerald Lyons, and Joan Terrell-Paige voting to adopt the budget, while Vice President Lekendrick Shaw and Trustees Alexander Hamilton and Noemi Velazquez voted against the measure.