Jersey City BOE OK’s new $638M budget, status of 400 layoffs remains uncertain

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The Jersey City Board of Education passed a hefty $638 million budget for the 2019-2020 scholastic year, and while hundreds of layoffs are still possible, a plan is in the works to prevent a significant portion of them.

Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas immediately started the meeting with public comments so that teachers, parents and education advocates had the chance to provide their remarks early as part of a marathon meeting that went well over six hours.

Parent after parent, teacher after teacher and advocate after advocate, criticized the board for not taking preemptive action that they say could have secured millions of dollars in local funding.

This would have been essential to offset impending state adjustment aid cuts of approximately $27 million in the 2019-2020 school year, followed by another $180 million over the next five years.

Predictably, the speakers chided the board for not raising the school tax levy beyond two percent, which would’ve raised approximately $10 million this year, or why the board hasn’t worked to persuade City Hall or the county to allocate money from local sources.

“You can engage the city. You can go to City Hall and demand that they allocate their funds to the schools – PILOT funds, surplus funds, payroll taxes, the full amount. They have school money that belongs to the schools and we want it back,” bellowed Brigid D’Souza, a professor at St. Peter’s College and local education activist with Jersey City Together.

She was followed by local real estate agent Emily Pecot, who expressed astonishment that the board is seeking to lay off over 400 instruction and non-instructional staff in the district.

“I’m shocked at the negligence, you guys knew for a year, for a full year, that these cuts were coming from the state. And just three weeks ago you finally asked for a very small tax levy or put any pressure on the city to address this, that’s crazy,” Pecot said.

Pecot and D’Souza were two of approximately 75 people who expressed their frustration with the board, compelling Thomas to place the board’s woes in some historical context, saying that the board’s troubles began nearly 10 years ago when former Gov. Chris Christie (R), beginning in 2009, started to minimally decrease funding for the district but then increased the cuts during his tenure.

“I want to set some historical references in perspective in how we got here. Ten years ago when the School Funding Reform Act was implemented in 2008-2009, that was the last year that Jersey City was ever fully funded by the state of New Jersey,” he began.

” … In the first five years, the underfunding was minimal, although the highest in the first five years, the highest ever, was $22 million. By 2013-2014, the sixth year of Christie’s tenure, and the first full year of previous [Dr. Marcia Lyles] as Superintendent our underfunding jumped to $96 million. And then the following year it jumped to $103 million, but nobody raised a flag, nobody flinched, not the BOE president or the superintendent.”

At a press conference two weeks ago where Thomas and Board Counsel Angelo Genova announced a lawsuit against the state to reverse impending state adjustment aid cuts, he repeated and emphasized that the total compounded cut by the state amounts to a whopping $750 million because the average cut over the past five years has been approximately $110 million.

“Now just imagine a school district which is underfunded to the extent of $750 million in 10 years time, that’s what you see when teachers complain about lack of supplies, when students complain about the lack of facilities. I have gone into some of those bathrooms, I would rather not use them. But the fact is that it’s a direct result of $750 million in underfunding by the state,” Thomas said.

He then went onto announce that there may be a possibility to stave off all the instructional and non-instructional staff cuts that amounts to about $40 million ($22 million in non-instructional, and $18 million in non-tenured instructional teachers) because City Hall allegedly told him that they have certified a projection of $30.7 million in the payroll tax that the city has collected since it was enacted last year.

“City Hall reached out to us this morning and confirmed that they feel comfortable in projecting an annual payroll tax collection for the 2019-2020 school year of about $27 million which will be incorporated into the budget that we are voting on today,” said Thomas.

That would still leave about $13 million out of the $40 million in staffing action that the district is taking that could still potentially lead to 400 layoffs.

However, to make up that difference, Thomas explained the board is considering how to figure out how to “optimize our fixed assets” that the district owns and terminate its external leases with entities such as the early childhood center at the Our Lady of Sorrows, as well as sending notice to the Archdiocese of Newark to forgive the board’s lease with the Infinity Campus.

In his closing remarks just before midnight, despite all the impending state adjustment aid cuts over the next five years, Thomas said that the board is aiming to surpass this year’s $638 million budget to $1 billion in four years to ensure that the district’s 33,000 children “all have a chance at the American Dream.”

“What I am asking of board members and the administration is to look at this budget in the continuum of the next four years. This is not a one-stop effort. We have to plan for a $1 billion fully-funded budget. That’s the money that we need to fully fund this district, to fully service the goals and aspirations of our students to give them a real shot at the American Dream.”

Thomas told HCV in an interview that, in light of the state aid cuts, the district will get to $1 billion in four years with annual collections of the payroll tax of $80 million from City Hall, an increase of taxes of $100 million annually and what he described as “operational efficiencies.”

The budget finally passed by a vote of 5-4, with Trustees Lorenzo Richardson, Joan Terrell-Paige, Gevonder DuPree and Matt Schapiro voting no.

We live streamed much of the public’s comments to the board, as well as the board’s deliberations to our Facebook Page, which can be viewed below:

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