Dickinson High School Jersey City 16x9
Dickinson High School Jersey City

Two outside experts and the former Board of Education president are taking issue with Mayor Steven Fulop’s recent attacks on the BOE and school officials following their adoption of a record $955 million budget and a tax levy that would cost the average homeowner an additional $1,600 per year.

In an interview with the Jersey Journal, the mayor asked, “What are we getting for that money? And where is our money going?” The mayor claimed that the annual cost to educate a child had reached $32,000 thousand. Jersey City is, he asserted, “amongst the highest in the entire country for a school system that is largely failing and hasn’t shown meaningful progress.”

“You need actual good decision making and good accountability,” the mayor said. According to the Jersey Journal, the mayor “took a shot at the ‘bloated salaries’ of district leadership, saying district officials and the board ‘have not looked at any common-sense changes that have been recommended to them for years.’” At an April 2 meeting at the St. John’s Apartment Complex, the mayor repeated the charges, complaining that teacher salaries were 30 percent above average.

His spokesperson, Kimberly Wallace-Scalcione, piled on, calling the school tax hike “unconscionable.”

The mayor has found a receptive audience. Said “Brian O.” in a Facebook thread on the subject, “Schools are an industry that can raise taxes on people any time they want to continue funding their criminal operations.” “Tricia R.” added, “We will be in the same boat again next year, mismanaged, promises…same shit diff year. You don’t throw money at a problem and think it’s gonna be fixed!”  “Bill A.” added, “The BOE spends money like a drunken sailor, and everyone knows it yet we have very little to show for it in the way of graduation rates, Math or English proficiency.”

The mayor’s criticisms, however, don’t appear to be well supported by the available evidence. Indeed, the data suggests that the mayor has misrepresented and, in some cases, made false claims about the budget and the state of the Jersey City Schools.

The 2022-23 school budget of $955 million is, indeed, breathtakingly large; and to the uncritical eye, can only be explained by profligate spending.

According to experts, however, it’s not that simple. The school budget and the simultaneous need to raise taxes are being driven by factors largely beyond the control of the Board of Education and administrators. These include Jersey City’s explosive development, changes in state law, and a push by education advocates to fund the schools at an “adequate” level. Moreover, Jersey City schools perform relatively well when compared to similar districts.

It isn’t surprising that Mayor Fulop would go after the Board of Education and school administrators. The narrative of free-spending, “unaccountable” bureaucrats plays well with many voters. In the wake of the 2017 revaluation of the city’s properties, which raised taxes for many downtown homeowners who form the mayor’s political base, rising school taxes are an understandable concern.

However, the blame appears to be misplaced, say those knowledgeable about school funding. The Board of Education and school administrators have been captives of a system of state funding that made today’s tax increases inevitable and necessary.

A rich city with many poor children

In a sense, Jersey City is a microcosm of America, with vast disparities in wealth. Driven by a building boom and gentrification, the $45 billion value of Jersey City’s property, on which school taxes are based, far exceeds any school district in the state.  At the same time, Jersey City’s poverty rate is close to 16 percent, compared to 9 percent statewide. Approximately 60 percent of students in Jersey City schools are enrolled in the state’s free and reduced lunch program.

Reflecting this high rate of poverty, Jersey City is one of 31 state-designated “Abbott” districts, named after the 1985 case Abbott v. Burke in which the New Jersey State Supreme Court held that significant expenditure disparities between poor urban and wealthy suburban school districts were unconstitutional.

For years, because of this high poverty rate, Jersey City received massive amounts of state aid. But according to critics and many legislators, the formula on which that aid was based, first put into place in 2008, didn’t account for Jersey City’s ballooning property values. The old formula, they say, kept school taxes artificially low.

In 2018 alone, one analysis showed that Jersey City received $151.5 million more in state aid than it should have given its wealth.  “Despite [its] staggering increase in wealth, Jersey City still receives state aid as if it were the struggling city of the 1980s,” wrote the analyst Jeffrey Bennett, a recognized expert on New Jersey school funding.

Bennett was, and is, by no means alone in this view. “From 2010 to 2018, we were technically over aided” says Jersey City resident, blogger, and St. Peter’s University Assistant Professor Brigid D’Souza.

Awash in state aid and limited in its ability to raise taxes more than two percent per year, the Board of Education shielded local taxpayers from the school tax rates found elsewhere in New Jersey. Thus, in 2018, Jersey City homeowners paid school taxes at a rate of .36 (per $100 of assessed value) compared to a state average of 1.45. The overall tax burden (which includes school, county, and city taxes) was equally low, with Jersey City’s homeowners paying at a rate of 1.5 compared to a state average of 2.8.

S2 and the end of Jersey City’s free ride

Jersey City’s luck ran out in 2018 when state legislators voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new school funding formula called S2. S2 eliminated the “over-aiding” of districts like Jersey City in favor of less affluent districts, like Elizabeth and Paterson, which lack the wealth to adequately fund their schools. It has been estimated that S2 will, by 2025, reduce Jersey City Public School’s state aid by $375 million.

S2 sent the Board of Education, school administrators and local politicians scrambling for ways to fill the budget gap. In November 2018, Jersey City enacted a payroll tax, the proceeds from which would go to the schools and help to offset some of the loss in state aid. In May 2019, more than 200 non-tenured public-school employees were threatened with layoffs that were only narrowly averted.

Mayor Steven Fulop and former Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas
Mayor Steven Fulop and former Jersey City Board of Education President Sudhan Thomas

A few months later, the Board was thrown into turmoil when its president, Sudhan Thomas, was indicted for promising to make a lawyer the district’s “special counsel for real estate” in exchange for a cash bribe. Thomas was a close ally of the mayor, who had appointed him to also head up the Jersey City Employment and Training Program. Thomas was later also indicted for embezzling money from the that agency.

Amidst the upheaval, the group Jersey City Together pushed back against budget cuts and layoffs as the solution to the schools’ funding woes. Instead, D’Souza, and others argued that Board of Education needed to raise taxes to meet the state prescribed  “adequacy budget” — the cost of educating all students to achieve state standards — which it hadn’t done since 2008. Advocates called this “fully funding” the schools.

As Jersey City’s wealth increased, it had also been missing another state target: paying its “fair share” of the costs of running the school system.

Faced with stiff opposition to budget cuts and large cuts in state aid, the Board of Education began raising property taxes dramatically. In the three years following the passage of S2, the average Jersey City homeowner’s school taxes climbed $320, $550, and $993 respectively. The city was able to offset last year’s increase by using $69 million in Covid-19 relief funds.

If the tax increases dismayed homeowners, the view was very different for education advocates, who celebrated the 2021-2022 budget for “fully funding” the schools for the first time in thirteen years. For his part, with this year’s $1,600 average school tax increase and nothing to soften the blow, it appears the mayor found the school board and administrators an easy target.

An “unconscionable” increase in school taxes

Experts place the blame elsewhere. Danielle Farrie, research director of the Education Law Center, and Jeffrey Bennett have rarely seen eye to eye on school funding issues especially when it comes to teachers’ unions. But, when it came to the need for Jersey City to pay up, they were of one mind.

Said Farrie, “Jersey City has been able to prosper under … artificially low tax rates for years, and now that the state is saying that [the] district and the municipality needs to ante up its school taxes like every other district … Jersey City has for decades has been able to coast on these really low tax rates because they were getting lots of funding for schools that was disproportionate to the property values.”

Bennett agrees. “Jersey City is just catching up to the state average. Because the taxes have been so low for so long, the taxes now have to increase by a lot each year.”

The mayor “wants to blame the district, but it’s not the district’s fault,” said Farrie.

“What I find so infuriating about the mayor’s comments,” continues Farrie “is that it is completely divorced from the reality the school district is facing, which is that the state gives them a number of the amount of local revenue that needs to support the school district. They are nowhere near that number.”

Bennett agrees. “It doesn’t make sense to criticize the Jersey City Board of Ed for [the size of its budget] because it operates within parameters set by the state and JCEA [the Jersey City Education Association].”

“Top-heavy” salaries

In his critique, Fulop called administrator salaries “top heavy” and cited high teacher pay, which he claimed was 30 percent above the average. But the reality is more complicated.

Former Board of Education President Mussab Ali, currently a second year student at Harvard Law School, acknowledges that teacher pay had become “top heavy” for those with seniority when he entered contract negotiations in 2019. But the story was quite different lower down the pay scale, he says.

“When we went into our negotiation [with the union], I remember when I looked at teachers’ salaries, we were just not competitive at an entry level. Newer teachers got the bulk of the raises. A new teacher went from $54 to $61 thousand. The elder teachers, which is about fifty percent of the union along with the union leadership, got a $500 increase.”

If Ali was miserly with overpaid senior teachers, the contract he negotiated was still controversial. Then Senate President Steve Sweeney called the contract “a giveaway to the local NJEA.”

On average, Jersey City does pay its teachers relatively well. A 2020 analysis ranked Jersey City 30th of 657 districts statewide, with a median teacher salary of $87,130. That would put Jersey City teachers 23 percent above the state median of $70,815, not the 30 percent the mayor has claimed. But despite this, when it comes to the 94 school districts with 3,500 students or more, Jersey City isn’t even in the top 20 in terms of classroom teacher salaries and benefits.

Says Ali, “I still don’t think we pay our teachers enough for the work they have to do … You look at districts like Milburn, which are resource heavy, easy jobs, no real other issues that they have to deal with with these children: They still make more than Jersey City teachers.”

“Bloat” and “common-sense changes”

If there is a kernel of truth to the mayor’s point about teacher salaries, his claim that administrative salaries are “bloated” appears to be wholly unsupported by data.

According to the most recent Taxpayer Guide to Education Spending published by the New Jersey Department of Education, of the 94 districts with more than 3,500 students, Jersey City is ranked 33rd lowest in total administrative spending. When it comes to just the salaries and benefits of the school administration, Jersey City did even better, at 27th least expensive.

The data jibes with Ali’s assessment. “I don’t think there’s any way you can look at the central office number and say that it’s super bloated. Our business administrator makes $30 or $40 thousand less than the business administrator in Newark.”

Perhaps most misleading for many was the mayor’s claim that Jersey City is spending $32,000 dollars per student per year.

Instead of using the standard figure — the district’s [2021-22] operating budget of $754 million — to arrive at a per pupil cost, the mayor, said Acting Superintendent Norma Fernandez, included “one-time grants to address specific needs such as keeping students safe during the pandemic, testing students and staff for Covid, doing contact tracing, addressing the learning loss or providing specific services for special needs students by 2024” as well as “federal funds for charter and non-public schools that are presented within the Jersey City Public Schools’ budget.”

Jersey City School Superintendent Norma Fernandez
Jersey City School Acting Superintendent Norma Fernandez

In contrast, for the purpose of comparing school districts, the state excludes the one-time revenue sources used by the mayor to inflate the per pupil number. According to the commonly used formula, the real cost to educate a child in Jersey City, says Fernandez, is approximately $22,657, putting it well within what is typical for a district of its size.

Where Jersey City currently stands in relation to other districts will become clearer in the next few months after it releases its “user friendly budget,” which allows an apples-to-apples comparison of New Jersey’s school districts.

In his Jersey Journal interview, the mayor also criticized the Board of Education for not looking at “any common-sense changes that have been recommended to them for years.”

But Ali disagrees vehemently with the notion that there are obvious “common-sense” cost savings to be had. “We go through this extensive process where every single principal goes before the administration and presents exactly what they need for the following year. I challenge people to look at those numbers and tell us where we would make reductions.”

In fact, The Jersey City Schools Annual Budget is surprisingly detailed, allowing people to do as Ali suggests.  The school budget sets out school-level expenditures as small as $250. Peruse the mayor’s municipal budget, in contrast, and figures generally round out to the tens of thousands of dollars with no detail as to how the money is being spent.

You need “good accountability”

The mayor’s claim that the schools are “unaccountable” also rankles Ali. “This argument about accountability, I’ve always hated it … I think we’re more accountable than the City Council is.” Ali points to the fact that three members of the Board are elected every year, giving the the public regular opportunity to weigh in. “The city council gets elected once, and for four years they’re in. For four years [the public] is stuck with the people who are there, and you can’t really make a difference.”

“The amount of people voting in school board elections has gone up and up and up. People see these tax increases and are continually supportive of the team. More people voted for Lorenzo [Richardson] than voted for Steve Fulop for mayor.”

“The difference between a school district and the city is that there are real metrics … you can look at student performance. In a city, there’s no real metric for quality of life. There’s no statewide survey.”

However, in a 2020 report by the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers University monitoring the system’s compliance with its plan to return to local control, Jersey City Schools were criticized for “inconsistent submissions of evidence, mis-identified documents, limited reporting, and repeated requests resulting in several rounds of evidence submission.”

But the BOE has shown a willingness to find waste. In 2018, prompted by the looming state aid cuts wrought by S2, the district hired consultants O’Connor Davies, LLP to identify “operational inefficiencies.” The firm came back with a report identifying $116 million in potential savings and unrealized revenues. As a result, Ali says the district changed its health insurance plan and made other adjustments. Fully $53 million of the total, however, was the result of expenses incurred by the district for capital improvements that should have been covered by the state and revenues that the district lost because of tax abatements given to developers.

A “largely failing” district that “hasn’t shown meaningful progress”

On performance, the mayor was equally critical, characterizing Jersey City schools as “a largely failing public school system” that “hasn’t shown meaningful progress.”

This was not his position, however, in 2017, as the state turned control of the district back over to the Board of Ed, which had lost it in 1989 due to poor performance. At the time, the mayor called the move validation of the district’s progress.

Ali pushes back on the mayor’s description of the district today. “It depends on who you compare us to. If you compare us with other Abbott districts like Newark and Paterson, we outperform them by a landslide. The demographics of Jersey City are changing, and as the schools improve there can be other districts that we compare ourselves to. But it’s tricky because we are still an Abbott district.”

Bolstering Ali’s point, the website schooldigger.com ranks Jersey City 372nd out of 590 districts statewide, handily beating Abbott districts like Elizabeth, Paterson and Newark and even edging out non-Abbott districts like Bayonne and North Bergen.

Kearny, next door, has similar demographics to Jersey City, with 54 percent of its students termed economically disadvantaged. According to state data, Jersey City students bested that district as well on English and math.

If there’s a place where Jersey City’s schools are failing, it’s in graduating its students. In 2019, New Jersey had one of the highest rates nationally at 91 percent. That year, Jersey City graduated just 75 percent of its high school seniors, slightly fewer than Newark or Paterson, both of which have higher rates of poverty than Jersey City.

Asked about the low graduation rate, Ali is forthright. “I’ll be honest with you, it wasn’t top of mind because the problem that we were facing was financially how is this district going to survive … this was our problem with strategic planning. How can you strategically plan if you don’t know how many teachers are going be in classrooms? That burden that was placed on the district was a very tough burden.”

Yet not all schools are having a hard time graduating their seniors. In 2019, at Infinity Institute, a magnet school for sixth through twelfth graders in which 66 percent of the students were classified as “economically disadvantaged,” fully 100 percent graduated.

When it comes to the performance of individual schools, the Jersey City Public Schools district is as diverse as the city itself. McNair High School and Infinity rank as the 5th and 11th best high schools, respectively, statewide. Academy 1 Middle School has been designated a national Blue Ribbon school.

But the failures are equally noteworthy. At Snyder High School in 2019, only 60 percent of students graduated, and just 29 percent met or exceeded expectations on statewide English tests. At Lincoln High School, the number of students meeting or exceeding the English standard was a paltry 17 percent, and the graduation rate was 62 percent. Chronic absenteeism, which refers to students who were absent for 10 percent or more of days enrolled, for both schools was 24 percent, nearly double the state average.

But the issues sabotaging student achievement at Snyder and Lincoln are not limited to Jersey City. At Weequahic High School in Newark just 10.9 percent of students met or exceeded expectations on statewide assessments in English in 2019. Absenteeism was a stratospheric 46.9 percent. At Central High School in Newark a slightly better 13.9 percent met the English assessment standard. There, absenteeism was a stunning 55.2 percent, three times the state average.

The discouraging performance of Snyder, Lincoln, Weequahic and Central rightly beg the question as to whether educators know how to overcome the impediments to learning wrought by poverty. A study in 2008 found that funding under Abbott brought about “a significant positive impact on 11th grade achievement.” However, a 2012 study found that years of increased funding had had a negligible effect on improving outcomes for the poorest districts. The mayor’s critique seemed to make no allowance for the difficult task facing teachers and administrators.

***

In the end, Jersey City looks a lot like other school systems with large concentrations of impoverished children. It is expensive to operate and in many ways an underperformer academically when compared with wealthier suburban systems.

Given this reality, it easy to see why it would be smart politics and a fair question for the mayor to ask, “What are we getting for that money?”

But in going one step further and lambasting the system, the Board of Ed and administrators, the mayor, it would appear, is on shaky ground. The per pupil cost is not $32,000 per year, and the BOE is no less accountable than the mayor or the city council.

Despite massive state aid, the system, which was underfunded for years by the state’s own criterion and tasked with serving some of New Jersey’s neediest children, has done alright. It has shown that it can fund and staff excellent schools like McNair, Infinity and Academy 1. But like districts in other large New Jersey cities, it has struggled to properly educate kids suffering the effects of poverty.

Facing higher costs on everything from food to trash pickup, the mayor has found a sympathetic audience in Jersey City’s property owners. But though the mayor left it out of his comments, even with this year’s tax increase, Jersey City residents will continue to pay property taxes at a much lower rate than most school districts throughout the state. But it’s probably not a winning strategy for a politician to talk about it.

Updated 5/1/22 10:40 a.m.

Aaron is a writer, musician and lawyer. Aaron attended Berklee College of Music and the State University of New York at Purchase. Aaron served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. He received a J.D....