Jersey City Board of Education trustees and city council members who met for a joint session on Wednesday are in agreement: to solve the public schools’ funding crisis, they must work together. City council members did not promise any specific amounts of funding at the session, but the two governing bodies planned to form subcommittees and reconvene for another meeting in May.
Conversation among the officials who met at the Hank Gallo Community Center in Lincoln Park was congenial, although due to WiFi problems that made the livestream unwatchable, members of the public could not view the meeting in real time.
The school board has passed a preliminary budget for the 2021-22 school year that includes an $85 million increase in the tax levy. The preliminary budget would raise school taxes on the average Jersey City home assessed at $461,925 by an additional $993 per year – or $83 per month – in school taxes, according to the district.
Superintendent of Schools Franklin Walker has said the budget will repair years of underfunding for the district of 30,000 students. School Board President Mussab Ali, who is a graduate of McNair Academic High School, put that in concrete terms at the session. “The students who are graduating this year, the class of 2021, from kindergarten to 12th grade, have never had fully funded Jersey City public schools,” Ali said.
Ali said the state of New Jersey has been cutting aid to the district based to some degree on Jersey City’s growth in ratables, which he said have risen from $20 billion to more than $40 billion. He also pointed out that the only 27% of the city’s revenue goes to the schools, while the state average is 53%.
“Jersey City, as a city, can afford to put more money in, but the question is how are we going to do it sustainably and in a way that doesn’t hurt homeowners,” said Ali.
The school board’s 2021-22 budget includes $86 million in payroll taxes from the city, even though the city has only certified $65 million of this owed amount.
Ward E Councilman James Solomon spoke about working together to come up with “additional revenue raisers,” such as cigarette taxes. “We don’t know what the future of the commercial waterfront is going to be that was supposed to fund a good portion of the payroll tax,” Solomon said.
In agreement Solomon’s ideas for local revenue sources was Ward D Councilman Yousef Saleh.
“We as a council should be looking at recreational cannabis and passing that as soon as possible, sort of creating the framework for how we’re going to tax it,” he said.
Saleh, along with others on the board and council, said pressure needs to be put on state officials.
“This is an election year, so that is front and center in mind. You can’t come get votes from our area and then meanwhile hurt a district of majority Black and brown students,” said Saleh.
Councilman-at-Large Rolando Lavarro said there are only two ways to alleviate the taxpayer burden and adequately fund schools: “by either substantially reducing the city’s levy, so as to offset the increases on the school side, and/or having the city contribute revenues to the Jersey City Public Schools.”
Lavarro had proposed a meeting between the city council and school board during public comments at a recent Board of Education meeting. He is being mentioned as a potential challenger to Mayor Steven Fulop in this fall’s citywide elections.
Council President Joyce Watterman and Ali said the next step after the session is to form subcommittees, which will focus on legislative outreach, finances and operations. Watterman said “we can come back to the public as a unified body once the subcommittees know what they have to do.”
“If we all live here, I think we should all get along and put everything on the table,” Waterman said.
The preliminary 2021-22 school budget is currently awaiting approval from the county superintendent. The district’s budget calendar lists April 22 as a tentative date for a board meeting on budget adoption and April 24 as the earliest date for the next public budget hearing.