Jersey City students, teachers and parents led a robust rally from the pedestrian plaza at Newark Avenue to City Hall, where Ward E Councilman James Solomon told the crowd that he’s committed to allocating tax abatement money to the public schools.
Chanting a mix of rally slogans along the route that traversed the busy intersection at Christopher Columbus Drive and Grove Street, Board of Education Trustee Mussab Ali was the first school official to address the crowd over the ongoing funding crisis.
At recent city council and board of education meetings, education advocates and union officials with the Jersey City Education Association have cited the need for the BOE to raise the school tax levy in order to increase funding from local coffers.
However, BOE Trustee Marilyn Roman said at the May 13 meeting that she isn’t in favor of raising the school tax levy because she’s not in favor of raising taxes on residents, although the recent tax revaluation rebalanced the amount of taxes wealthier and lower-income households pay.
But Ali told the crowd that the BOE has already raised the school tax levy.
“To be very clear, the BOE has raised the levy, almost 10 percent this year. And in future years, we’re going to continue to increase that levy. That’s a reality, and everyone here knows that,” Ali said.
He then said the city should be allocating money from recent lawsuit settlements and a budget surplus.
“But, let’s remember that for this year specifically, the first year where we’ve had to deal with this problem (of underfunding), the city just won a $18 million lawsuit with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. On top of that, they already have a $35 million surplus in their budget,” he continued.
“That’s money that could come to our schools this year. It takes six votes on the city council to get us that money. Once we get that money, we can reduce the number of layoffs that are existing in our school system.”
Apparently, Solomon may be one of the city council votes in favor of that proposal, as he said next that he’s in favor of the city using tax abatement money to contribute towards local funding of the BOE.
“In looking at our budget, we get $120 million in abatements, and if we properly share that with the schools the city would be transferring each year an additional $30 million for the schools. Think about what can be done with that amount of money,” said Solomon.
He acknowledged that the council can’t make that allocation for the current budget cycle, but he said he’s committed to transferring abatement money towards the public schools in future budgets.
“That’s my commitment to you. That this year I will fight to transfer money and in future years I will fight so that two, three, four years from now we can’t say that the city is taking the abatement revenue away from the schools because we are responsibly sharing it as we should.”
Many of the teachers and parents who participated in the rally attended the city council meeting where there was no agenda item regarding school funding, but BOE President Sudhan Thomas was the first person to speak during the public portion of the meeting.
As he has emphasized in different forums and venues, such as when he stood with a BOE lawyer on April 29 to announce a lawsuit against the state to prevent the elimination of state adjustment aid of over $100 million over the next several years through 2025.
With that in mind, Thomas told the council yesterday that the state’s underfunding requires city action.
Brigid D’Souza, a leader with Jersey City Together, as well as an accountant and assistant professor of accounting at St. Peter’s College, agrees with Thomas for city allocations for the BOE budget, but she argues that Thomas is wrong to say that the state is underfunding the district.
“The state has been giving Jersey City it’s full share of aid, plus extra aid called adjustment aid for about 10 years and that extra aid is what’s being taken away – it’s being taken away because other districts in New Jersey are actually being under-aided by the state,” said D’Souza.
At the April 29 press conference, Thomas warned there could be hundreds of layoffs of instructional and non-instructional staff as result of impending state adjustment aid cuts.
But then at the BOE meeting on May 13, he announced that the city “certified” that it will will be able to direct $27 million towards the BOE budget thanks to the 1 percent payroll tax collection that passed last year to help offset the approximately $40 million in staff action layoffs.
Furthermore, he told the council yesterday that the staff cuts are off the table, but that because of an ongoing audit of the district by outside auditors to find “operational efficiencies” to reduce staff redundancies there could still be up to 200 layoffs for the 2019-2020 school year.
“The $40 million in staffing cuts that the budget called for in March is no longer on the table, it’s behind us. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be layoffs because of an ongoing, comprehensive audit of the district and the district administration is working with the auditors to identify positions that are redundant,” Thomas explained.
We live streamed the entire march and rally at City Hall to our Facebook Page, which can be viewed below: