Dickinson High School Jersey City
Dickinson High School Jersey City

It took the Jersey City Board of Education five attempts to approve a budget for the 2021-22 school year. After spontaneous motions for funding arrangements outside the proposed budget failed, the board approved by a 5-4 vote the $814 million budget presented by Superintendent of Schools Franklin Walker, which officials and activists say comes the closest to full funding the district has had in a decade.

Walker said raising the tax levy was the only option to secure the necessary funding for the city’s students, 80% of whom he said live in low-income conditions. He said the budget gives the students enrolled in the city’s public schools “a real fighting chance to excel and to reverse the inequities of past budgets of limitation.”

“We need to let the city decide how they meet their moral and financial obligation to the 30,000 children in our schools. The city can provide a higher percentage of their revenue to the schools, similarly to what other towns do, or use the relief funds that are provided by the government,” said the superintendent.

The budget uses $85 million in a “banked cap” through which the state allows districts to raise school taxes above the 2% cap on property tax increases by using saved additional taxing authority not used in prior years. The owner of the average Jersey City home assessed at $461,925 is projected to pay an additional $993 per year – or $83 per month – in school taxes, according to the budget prepared by Business Administrator Regina Robinson. 

Walker had initially proposed using $100 million in the banked cap, but made adjustments after Monday. The budget still includes robust program investments, including $17.8 million to support 216 full-time equivalent staff positions and funds to support programs and services, such as eyeglass tests and glasses for all students, a bilingual program, a summer academy through which students can recover course credits, professional development for school principals, textbook adoption, career and technical education and more. Under the adjustments, a 3:1 technology initiative became a 1:1 initiative supported by grant funding and $10,000 for a trauma-sensitive schools program was reduced to $5,000.

Walker and Board President Mussab Ali are hopeful that federal money from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act will help fund programs and ease the tax burden before the budget is officially adopted in May.

In a chaotic series of votes, motions to use both less and more from the banked cap failed to pass. While motions to use $70 million and the originally proposed $100 million in the cap did not pass, neither did two motions to pass Walker’s proposal that would use $85 million.

Trustee Gina Verdibello urged her fellow board members who were holding out for a lower or higher amount to compromise. Without a budget vote, the county superintendent would have made the decision on school funding.

Trustee Lorenzo Richardson changed his vote to support using $85 million in the cap after confirming that Walker was comfortable with that amount, and Trustee Gerald Lyons, who arrived four hours into the meeting and had supported using $70 million, also changed his vote to use the $85 million. Richardson, Lyons, Ali, Verdibello and Trustee Marilyn Roman were the final “yes” votes.

The passage of the budget was appreciated by Jersey City Together leaders, who spoke out at the meeting asking the board to pass Walker’s budget so the district can stop trying to do more with less. The group urged the superintendent and board to support a fully funded budget in February and held a meeting last week where they said Walker and board president Mussab Ali committed to full funding.

Even Jersey City residents without children in school spoke up to advocate for the full funding of the city’s public schools.

Patrick Touissant said, “it’s very clear the difference in resources that are attributed to the private schools here versus the resources attributed to the public schools. I think that’s absolutely not right.”

While nearly all callers asked the board to pass the budget, PS 26 parent Erika Baez said, “I would love to say ‘fully fund the schools.’ My issue is the district has a hard time implementing things and keeping them going. There’s a lot of historical waste.”

She also said the circumstances of other advocates who called into the meeting don’t reflect the circumstances of the majority of the city’s residents.

“People don’t have money to pay their rent,” she said.

The $814 million budget will be submitted to the county superintendent by Monday, but Ali stressed at the meeting that it is not the final budget. After the county superintendent reviews it, the board has until May to make changes, he said. The district’s budget calendar lists May 9 as the adoption date for the budget, after a final hearing on May 7.

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...