Jersey City Board of Education
Jersey City Board of Education

At last night’s virtual special meeting, Jersey City Interim Superintendent Norma Fernandez and School Business Administrator Regina Robinson presented a $955.6 million budget for the 2022–23 academic year with an increase in the local tax levy from $278 million to as much as $483 million.

The “local tax levy” is the amount of the budget raised through local property taxes. The district also receives funding directly from the state.

If the district increases the budget the maximum amount discussed at the meeting, average school taxes will increase by $2,399 per year or $200 per month per household. The overall property tax increase, which includes city and county taxes, remains to be seen.

The state is reducing by $68.5 million the aid it sends to Jersey City’s public schools for the 2022–23 school year. The school district is also facing a $21 million reduction in payroll taxes from the city because the city’s payroll tax revenues fell in 2021 compared to 2020.

Combined, these losses have created a $184 million shortfall for the Jersey City Public Schools, which Fernandez says must be made up for to provide a “thorough and efficient” education to regular public school and charter school students.

“As I present this budget to the board for approval, please keep in mind that the district goal is to maintain current programs and invest in our ancient school buildings that have been neglected for years,” the Fernandez said.

A 170-page document containing the budget, school-level expenditures and more context was included in the agenda and can be read here.

Robinson noted that over $129 million — or 69 percent — of the $186.5 million the district will receive from the state aid will go right out the door to charter schools.”

Charter schools are indeed public schools, however they are independently managed.

Board President Gerald Lyons noted that the charter schools are not absorbing the district’s state aid reduction.

“We took the whole hit for the funding cut,” Lyons said. “I’m not a rocket scientist, but it doesn’t seem fair.”

Fernandez and Robinson then went on to discuss the nature of the schools budget. According to Fernandez, 77 percent of the budget consists of salaries and benefits for teachers and staff members. Robinson explained, “98 percent of the district staff sits inside of a collective bargaining unit, and they have moved up steps. That is the cost of doing business.”

Finally, Board members questioned the city’s contribution to the budget and whether more can be allocated to facilities.

“How do we find out what money the city has in the payroll tax trust fund that we can be eligible for as a district?” Julia Ioffe, the board’s vice president for non-instructional matters, asked.

While Board Counsel Michael Gross said the topic of payroll taxes had to be saved for closed session, a comment from the board’s instructional vice president, Gina Verdibello, led to some discussion on facilities spending, for which $600,000 less is budgeted than last year.

“Why are we doing the minimum?” Verdibello asked. “I thought the consensus was that we wanted to put more investment in facilities. I’m pretty sure that that was what I was hearing when we talked about the long-range facility plan.”

This long-range facility plan identified facilities needs in 70 percent of district schools, Fernandez said earlier in the meeting, including 21 schools needing roof repair or replacement and 32 schools that need doors replaced or fixed.

According to Robinson, the board and superintendent can ask for spending increases related to facilities.

“​​I wanted to start the conversation here, and then the board needs to make a decision with the superintendent,” Robinson said.

Jersey City Schools have been grappling with decreasing state aid since 2018, when a law known as S2 began the process of reducing aid to more affluent districts like Jersey City. To make up for the loss of aid, the law allowed districts to raise local school levies as needed.

Ironically, for the first time since 2008, in May 2021 the Board of Education was able to “fully fund” the system and spend what the state said was required to give each child an “adequate education.” As a result, it approved an $814 million budget, raising taxes on the average Jersey City homeowner by $1,000.

Board members have to vote on this year’s budget by Monday, March 21, according to Robinson and Gross.

Another special board meeting is set for Thursday March 17, in which additional details will be fleshed out before the vote. The meeting will be held virtually and will begin at 6 p.m.

Members of the public will be able to comment via video conference or phone call at that meeting if they call the board secretary’s office at 201-915-6074 or email before 4 p.m. Thursday.

Andrea Crowley-Hughes is a writer and media maker motivated by chronicling and sustaining communities. Her reporting on education, sustainability and the restaurant industry has recently been featured...