By Brigid D’Souza, Rev. Dr. Willard Ashley, Rev. Laurie Wurm
Jersey City has often been called “a tale of two cities.”
One tale: that of glass-lined corporate skyscrapers, thriving restaurants, and luxury housing that overlooks the Manhattan skyline. This tale is supported by a city government with marketing aimed at suburban New Jerseyans and Manhattanites who see Jersey City as affordable “gold coast” real estate with close proximity to Manhattan.
But let’s talk about the other tale.
To do so, we have to move off the coast, further into the city, to neighborhoods like Greenville, West Side, and the Heights. Here, we find dozens of school buildings, most of which are nearing one-hundred years old, lack potable water fountains, and have ceilings that crumble into classrooms.
The children who attend these schools are as talented as the children in any other zip code, are deserving of an excellent education, and are the greatest asset of the most diverse city in the country.
Many of the students are emerging bilinguals, and the student body is 38% Hispanic, 25% Black, 18% Asian American, and 15% white, reflecting the rich, racial and ethnic diversity of the city. Sixty percent of these students qualify for free or reduced lunch. And all students have been affected by teacher shortages, gaps in mental health support, and resources stretched thin – even before the pandemic even hit.
These two tales are intimately connected. The public numbers help show us how.
Between 2013 and 2018, Jersey City’s tax base grew from $19 billion to $34 billion, or 79%. Over that same time period, state education aid to Jersey City remained flat at about $400 million per year and our local school tax levy – the primary local resource to fund our schools – grew only 8%, from $114 million to $124 million.
By 2018, Jersey CIty Public Schools were $100+ million underfunded, due to insufficient local school tax. All that time, most of the $400 million in state aid was “excess” aid, held in place by a confluence of factors which acted like a fragile dam.
Then, in 2018, the dam broke and state aid began flowing away from Jersey City.
The state legislature passed “S2” and told Jersey City: you have a large enough tax base to fund your schools locally, so we are lowering your state aid accordingly. The legislature had to remove a “2% levy cap” rule which had previously restricted Jersey City from raising its school levy by more than 2% per year. In effect, Trenton forced Jersey City’s Board of Education to leapfrog its school funding paradigm within a truncated time period, forcing a tripling of the school levy within just a few years.
The state aid cuts were like hard medicine that the state was shoving down the city’s throat, with the mandate being: raise your school tax.
The state aid cuts have necessitated a mature, local response to locally fund our public schools. Yet that local response has been fraught.
In 2019, the Board of Education ignored Jersey City Together’s pleas to raise the local school levy and hundreds of teachers were laid off. In 2020, our organization grew its advocacy base, educated the community about tax facts, and supported a courageous budget put forth by then-Superintendent Franklin Walker that invested $50 million into the school levy to make up for that year’s aid cuts. That budget passed just as COVID-19 was hitting.
Through 2020 and 2021, as the pandemic left our children in isolation over zoom, we organized and advocated, supporting year-on-year school levy investments to make up for the state aid cuts, mostly to ensure we didn’t have a repeat of 2019’s devastating layoffs. This past March, Acting Superintendent Dr. Fernandez presented a budget that raised the school levy by $148 million, in part, she explained, to stave off layoffs.
Our advocacy has called for school tax levy increases so that our schools can remain open and operational. Yet we have seen that a major challenge is misinformation around why the school tax is needed and what the costs are if we do not invest in our schools.
So here are pertinent facts.
Children in Jersey City are still experiencing severely under-resourced schools due to years of chronic disinvestment. Most schools still lack potable water fountains, sufficient teaching staff, and mental health supports. The average per-pupil investment in 2020 (the most recently available data) was $19,000 per student, but even this is misleadingly high.
The state funding formula quite correctly calls for school districts to make greater investments in children who have greater needs. This includes families who qualify for free and reduced lunch, children who are emerging bilinguals, and students who need additional learning support.
The board of education recently passed a $990+ million budget. Two-thirds of the budget, or about $750 million, is operating expenses, of which $129+ million will immediately be allocated to over a dozen public charter schools. Most of this money pays for salaries and benefits for JCPS teachers, principals, security guards, nurses, and more.
The remaining one-third of the budget, or about $200 million, consists of nearly $80 million of state-funded preK and over $130 million of federal COVID aid which will be directed at long-standing capital repairs such as new roofs on school buildings, boiler systems to heat schools, and fixing doors in a majority of schools.
Jersey City’s school tax rate is lower than most in the state. Consider: Jersey City’s 2021 equalized school tax rate was only 0.521%, below the state average of 1.356%. Out of 565 municipalities, Jersey City’s equalized school tax rate was 49th lowest.
But finally, let’s get real about the entire property bill, which includes school but also city and county taxes. Jersey CIty’s school tax rate has historically comprised only 25 cents for every one dollar in property tax in Jersey City. The state average is much higher, at 52 cents for every dollar. So why is it lower in Jersey City? Because in Jersey City, most of the property tax has historically been consumed by the city.
What’s more, the public is seeing a schools budget that will not take effect until July 1, 2022. So we are debating a future school levy. Yet we are now in the second quarter of calendar year 2022 and we have yet to see the calendar year levies for both the city and county governments in Jersey City and Hudson County. In effect, the city and county are using levy dollars in 2022 that have not even been made public yet.
We are parents and advocates who care about our city’s children; as such, we demand that all children – in every ward, in every school – be written into the one tale of Jersey City that we believe still can be written: that of equity, inclusion, and a future supported by access to a world class, fully funded, fully resourced public school education.
Ms. D’Souza is a JCPS parent and professor of accounting. Rev. Ashley is the pastor of Abundant Joy Community Church. Rev. Wurm is the rector of Grace Church Van Vorst. All are leaders with Jersey City Together.