For all the chaos schools have gone through over the last six months, the 180-degree turn in how they operate and educate and all the questions that come with it, New Jersey’s school districts have at least one constant: their state funding.
Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday presented a $32.4 billion state budget for October through the end of June 2021 that for schools will mean the year ends much as it started, with state aid unchanged from 2019-2020 levels and most programs left intact.
There is still some pain for schools in this budget, including for nearly 200 districts that were set to see a funding cut at the beginning of the year and will continue to do so during what is a national emergency.
And while Murphy promised $150 million in additional federal funds for schools to pay for pandemic-related costs like new technology and millions of face masks, most acknowledge they are unlikely to cover the full costs.
Nonetheless, there were expressions of relief among school leaders and advocates on Tuesday, even if with some air of resignation.
Relief after ‘so much uncertainty’
“School districts have had to live with so much uncertainty this summer, and continue to do so,” said Elisabeth Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools. ”At least this alleviates some of that uncertainty.”
Added Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the state’s school boards association: “It looks like everything pretty much stays the same for schools.”
Murphy’s budget for schools is not final, of course, and legislative leaders on both sides of the aisle said on Tuesday that it remains in play as deliberations over the budget officially begin. The budget must be approved by the Legislature by Oct. 1.
But Murphy’s budget does continue the agreed-upon path that he had set with the Democratic leadership two years ago to eventually fully fund the state’s School Finance Reform Act, albeit with a pause.
That alone may assure the state aid numbers stay unchallenged in the budget, as following the formula for schools has been a longtime priority for Senate President Steve Sweeney and other Democratic leaders. And for all the political posturing, school aid — by far the largest single slice of the budget — rarely change after a governor has set out the spending proposal.
Sweeney: ‘Everything is part of the negotiation’
Still, Sweeney said in an interview with NJ Spotlight after the governor’s speech Tuesday that he remains open for now, neither endorsing nor rejecting the plan yet.
“Everything is part of the negotiation,” Sweeney said specifically of school funding. “I can’t throw anything out as we speak today. This is the start of the race, and you still have to run it.”
Besides the flat funding in so-called “formula aid” at $8.7 billion, Murphy’s budget includes several notable line items for schools:
- $874 million — or nearly $70 million more — for state-funded preschool, continuing to fund existing preschool programs and adding $10 million for additional districts to start new ones.
- $250 million for “extraordinary” special education aid, aimed specifically at costs for students with the greatest needs. This maintains the same level of grants as in 2019-2020.
There’s a big question mark over the pledged $150 million in federal CARES Act money for pandemic-related costs and how that will be distributed. Murphy had already earmarked $50 million of that total for technology costs alone, but the application process has only just begun, officials said.
Vrancik of the state school boards association said increased costs brought on by the pandemic are being borne in all districts, no matter their reopening plans and including those that will otherwise take a hit under the budget.
The governor’s $150 million in additional grants for pandemic-related costs comes out to about $100 per child.
‘‘I’ve seen national estimates that the extra cost to districts could be as much as $1,000 a child,” Vrancik said. “Whatever it is, in a district of thousands of students, that’s real money.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a corrected amount of federal CARES funding being provided New Jersey schools for pandemic-related costs. Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget would provide $150 million to K-12 schools, not $400 million, or about $100 per student.