The Jersey City Board of Education has voted to approve a preliminary $973 million budget to fund New Jersey’s second largest school district, after facing calls to pass a fully-funded budget and after a trustee switched her vote from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ after the initial vote failed.
The revised budget from last week is a $159 million increase from last year’s budget, primarily due to an increase in the district’s local tax levy, the local payroll tax, a decrease in state funding and increased salary and benefits costs across the district.
The district is expecting to earn about $570.2 million in total revenue, with $350.5 million coming from local sources, and $186.5 million coming from state sources.
A total of $754.2 million will be spent on expenditures, with $334 million for salaries, $112 million on benefits, $178 million on non-salary/operations, and $129 million for charter schools.
The tax levy will be $283.6 million, but in the revised version of the budget, the bank cap, a district’s expense increases that can be banked for up to three years to be used in levy increases, is proposed to be $143 million, which combined together for taxpayers would mean a yearly average of $1,611 per household, or about $134 per month, based on the average assessed property value of $465,400.
The original budget would have had a $2,399 average for households due to a local fair share bank cap of $200 million, but Business Administrator Regina Robinson said that in response to the district’s $184 million shortfall, they proposed a balanced budget for it so that they don’t deal a significant blow to taxpayers.
The balance budget includes $30 million in excess fund balance from FY 2021-22 and $6.3 million in excess surplus from FY 2020-21, and $142 million in the local fair share levy bank cap.
The school district is also expected to lose about $68.5 million in K-12 state aid, the most of any school district in all of New Jersey this year, following changes made at the state level for distributing aid back in 2018.
A chorus of residents called in to urge the board to fully fund the district, with a few also taking potshots at Mayor Steven Fulop and his administration for their hands off approach to the school district’s woes.
Nancy Pokler of advocacy group Jersey City Together urged the board to support the budget, with her two kids noting that bathrooms need repairs and they won’t be able to get their specials. Pokler also responded to a city spokewoman’s comments on the tax hike being “unconscionable.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what I think is unconscionable: a city that lives off a padded budget built off the back of our kids, pits city entities against the school, continues to hoard the majority of the overall budget, has created a grit to glam makeover for selected pockets of the city, while kicking dirt in the faces of our kids,” she said
Jersey City Education Association President Ron Greco also asked the board to support the budget, saying that children should get the services required and that the buildings need repairs.
“We’ll be proactive throughout the year, so you don’t have this when you get to next year,” said Greco. “Because you’re not getting any assistance from City Hall, until [Fulop] moves on and runs for governor, and someone else is seated in the mayor’s chair. You’re not going to get any help from City Hall.”
Jersey City’s reverse UNO card
The initial vote on the budget had failed 4-5, with Board President Gerald Lyons, Vice President Gina Verdibello, and Trustees Noemi Velazquez and Lorenzo Richardson voting yes, while Trustees Younass M. Barkouch, Lekendrick Shaw, Alexander Hamilton, Paula Jones-Watson and Vice President Natalia Ioffe voted no.
As the trustees were musing over what would happen if they don’t pass a budget in time, Jones-Watson said that she would change her vote. “I was in between a no and a maybe, so then I decided yes,” she said. “It wasn’t the preaching that did it to me.”
After passing a motion to reconsider, the final vote saw the budget being approved 5-4, with Lyons, Verdibello, Velazquez, Richardson and Jones-Watson voting yes, and Ioffe, Barkouch, Shaw and Hamilton voting no.
They also passed a motion 7-2 to approve a $142 million bank cap, with Shaw and Barkouch voting no.
Lyons said after the vote passed that there was “no easy solution,” noting that a number of people had written in to say that the budget would make living less affordable due to the tax increases.
“Either way, we were going to have people that are going to be in some level of distress,” he said. “I think everyone needs to understand it wasn’t because we don’t like kids or don’t support the district, it’s because we have our own personal opinions on what had to be done.”
Jersey City Together Education Leader Jyl Josephson praised the budget approval as “a victory for all of Jersey City and particularly for the children.” “The budget will do much to invest in children at a time when they have been through a global pandemic and are facing dire needs,” she said.
Jersey City spokeswoman Kimberly Wallace-Scalcione on the other hand said that the tax increase were “wrong”, “especially when at the same time they have bloated salaries in their central office and have not looked at any common-sense changes that have been recommended to them for years.”
“The big question for Jersey City residents is over the last few years, where Jersey City residents have put thousands more into the schools by the Board of Education raising taxes, have the schools in Jersey City showed any meaningful progress or reform for that money? Sadly, the answer is no,” she said.
The budget now goes to the Hudson County Executive County Superintendent for review and approval, and the final budget will need to be adopted by May 14.