NJ Plays "Biggest Loser"

It’s Budget Day in the Garden State and school district business administrators are frantically running spreadsheets based on projected cuts in state aid while superintendents contemplate elimination of programs and staff. Gov. Christie delivers the bad news at 2 pm today and possibly within hours districts will get the bottom line. The Star-Ledger is guessing an $820 million cut, though the devil’s in the details, i.e., districts that spend above the adequacy formula will take the biggest hits.

Meanwhile, districts are playing “Biggest Loser.” Is it wealthy suburban districts who stand to lose the largest amount of state aid? Cherry Hill, for instance, an I district (based on District Factor Groups that rate local wealth from A-J), may be cutting 175 staff members and slicing sports programs. In Moorestown, another I district, Superintendent John Bach says that “for us, this will be the first round of significant lay-offs in memory,” as programs on the chopping block include major reductions in middle school and high school sports, plus enriched summer school.

On the other hand, maybe the Biggest Losers are our poor urban districts. David Sciarra of the Education Law Center points out that Christie’s cuts effectively violate the court-approved School Funding Reform Act by not fully funding the formula intended to provide economic equity (thus, goes the old tune, educational equity, though we won’t address the atonality now). Legal challenge, anyone?

Not to oversimplify, but the cuts are the cuts. The real drama in this reality show will take place around the perimeter of the State House, where the NJEA leadership is leading rallies intended to protest “a disaster that would begin to dismantle the best school system in America,” according to Prez Barbara Keshishian. (Bob Ingle claims the last one in Mendham only tied up traffic and pissed off motorists.) Christie has promised districts a “tool kit” to allow for breaks at the bargaining table, which most take to mean passage of the proposed 2.5% cap on tax increases – logically, a hammer on 4% annual salary increases – and a pair of pliers in the form of a return to “last, best offer,” which would give school boards some teeth at negotiations time. Will NJEA allow their local affiliates a little lattitude to bend in order to prevent massive lay-offs? Stay tuned.

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