Final Budget for FY 2020-2021 Still Weeks Away
Board to Use Time for More Discussion and Public Input
At Friday’s special meeting of the Jersey City School Board parents praised Superintendent Franklin Walker’s proposed $736 million school budget for FY 2020-2021 and urged board members to approve it. If approved, it would increase the school tax levy (the part of assessed property taxes allocated to the public schools) $64 million, bringing the levy to $201 million.
Facing a midnight deadline to send an approval of the $736 million budget to Interim Executive County Superintendent Melissa Pearce, the board gathered at its Claremont Avenue headquarters to discuss the proposed budget. Eight of the nine board members supported the budget, but several members voiced concern that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and with schools closed until further notice, an increased tax levy would burden homeowners at a time when many people are losing or getting laid off from their jobs. Superintendent Walker acknowledged these are tough times, but said children must come first.
“I’m asking the board to invest in our children from the highest achiever to the most vulnerable,” Superintendent Walker said. “We are navigating difficult times, but our children are worth the sacrifice. If you think the cost to educate children of today is expensive, the cost not to educate them is much higher and has much greater consequence.”
Trustee Alexander Hamilton said he would like to postpone the vote during these uncertain times.
“I understand we want to pass this budget,” Trustee Hamilton said, “but I need to know what’s going on in the world, what’s going on in the city. I’m asking for this to be pushed back 30–60 days. I don’t care about the county. I care that the process is done right, and we make the proper assessment to get this done.”
Hamilton made a motion to postpone the vote, but no one seconded it.
Superintendent Walker’s budget includes the continuation of all existing programs and services, funding for ESL, a STEAM Academy, additional social workers and high school counselors, a mental health specialist and psychologist. The budget also calls for no teacher or staff layoffs or dismissals. Many of these concerns were brought up by parents in previous board meetings, and it seems Superintendent Walker listened.
Brigid D’Souza, a leader with Jersey City Together and a mother of two students at P.S. 3, said in response to the proposed school budget: “The initial budget from Superintendent Walker is both courageous and reasonable. It takes seriously the needs of Jersey City’s students and particularly its students who have the most needs. We hope the board does the right thing tonight and passes it, so they can begin more detailed discussions over the next two months.”
The school budget includes a $64 million school levy increase, which represents a 47% increase over last year’s school tax levy, but should not be mistaken for a 47% increase in property tax, which is made up of municipal, county and school taxes. The 2019-2020 school levy was $137 million. The 47% increase of $64 million will bring the school levy up to $201 million.
But the 2020-2021school budget still has a shortfall, Trustee Mussab Ali said.
“I think we need to recognize this is not a fully-funded budget,” Trustee Ali said. “Our schools last year were underfunded by $155 million. This year, despite the tax increase that we have, we would still be underfunded by $80 million based on the state formula of what is adequacy. That means last year we were underfunded by $5,000 per pupil. A student in our district was getting $5,000 less than what the state thinks is a thorough and efficient education. Even after our budget today, a student in our district will be getting $2,600 less than what the state thinks is a thorough and efficient education.”
Trustee Mussab Ali also wanted to clarify that the meeting that night was for the adoption of the budget, not a vote on the final budget.
“It doesn’t mean that today is the last day of the budget process,” Trustee Ali said. “It doesn’t mean this is the final version of the budget. We still will be getting public input and will be working on the budget over the course of the next six weeks. After that, we will vote to adopt a final budget.”
Parents called in during the public comments section of the meeting to voice their opinions. Scott Welfel, the father of a first-grade student said: “When we saw Superintendent Walker’s proposal, we were thrilled. This is the type of leadership we need. We saw the mayor’s response. We think (it) was alarmist in an unsubstantiated way.”
Werfel was talking about Mayor Steven Fulop’s dismissal of the $736 million budget as “really irresponsible” as reported on NJ.com. The Mayor’s school budget plan had proposed $45 million in cuts and a $25 million yearly increase to the school tax levy over the next three years. The school board did not adopt any of those measures in its proposed budget.
“They’re going to destroy the taxpayers,” Mayor Fulop said. “They’re going to destroy residents, both renters and homeowners. People are struggling, and it’s not going to get easier for a couple of months.”
Superintendent Franklin Walker doesn’t think the mayor sees the big picture. He said the budget that’s being presented is part of the district’s strategic plan that prepares students for college and for jobs that have not even been created yet. Walker said that it’s the board’s responsibility to ensure students are academically competitive now and in the future. It’s called “future proofing,” he said.
“The strategic plan drives our budget,” Superintendent Walker said. “We’ve seen a significant decrease in the funding of millions of dollars over the last few years. This year, we have an increased allocation for our charter schools of $13 million. The cost of operating continues to increase. Last year, we had to lay off 400 teachers to submit a balanced budget. Our students deserve the best qualified teachers. In order to make Jersey City more desirable and continue to expand, we need all of our students and all of our schools to be successful.”
Making the midnight deadline, the board approved the school budget 8-1 with Trustee Alexander Hamilton the sole dissenter. School Business Administrator Regina Robinson said it would proceed to the county for approval if it covers all the guidelines. Assuming Hudson County approves it, the board would then have between April 24 and May 7 to adopt the budget before it went to the state for approval. During that window of time, there would be a public hearing for Jersey City residents and additional discussions by the board.
School Board President Lorenzo Richardson presided over the meeting with Trustees Mussab Ali, Alexander Hamilton, Gerald Lyons, Lekendrick Shaw and Noemi Velazquez in attendance, and Marilyn Roman, Gina Verdibello and Joan Terrell-Paige on speakerphone.
The School Board Caucus Meeting is scheduled for Mon, March 23 at 6 pm. It will not be open to the public, but may be viewed live on Facebook.com.
Header: Jersey City Board of Education special meeting on March 20, photo by Sally Deering