NEWARK, NJ — Newly drafted 2020-2021 school budgets based on the state’s projections didn’t even have a chance to cool before COVID-19 came and upended the public sector. 

Newark Public Schools, which presented its budget hearing remotely in March, and other urban districts are adrift in a sea of unknowns as the state reassesses what it will allocate to schools. Many are already tightening their belts and preparing for the worst amid the ravaged economy, with some experts pointing to former Gov. Chris Christie’s 2010 cuts as precedent. 

While NPS was preparing for a $53.3 million (6.6%) increase, the district would still have been well below the adequacy line, owed $954.3 million from the state and $200.3 million from local taxes. Adequacy, or “fair share,” is a number defined by the state to determine a district’s ability to support itself and where the funds come from.

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Danielle Farrie, research director for the Education Law Center in Newark, said NPS only just recently began to rebound from the Christie-era funding cuts made during the last economic recession. 

“If we think about inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending levels, Newark is just now back to where we were 10 years ago. For them to see another cut going forward would be pretty dramatic,” she said. “They’re still spending less on regular instruction than they were in 2009. They’re still spending less on support services than in 2009. So it’s likely that those areas are going to be what takes another hit.”

When cost-cutting goes into effect, social workers, non-tenured teaching staff, counselors, extracurricular activities, classroom technology and instructional support are the first areas to face the chopping block. During a time when students are suffering significant learning losses, schools like Newark should be getting more money next year, Farrie said. 

In a city that has led New Jersey in COVID-19 deaths and positive cases, Newark’s more than 40,000 children will also return to school with trauma and grief-counseling needs. The sheer anxiety of being in a classroom after experiencing a deadly pandemic will also be challenging for many students. 

June 5 is the last day districts have to tell their non-tenured teachers whether their contracts will be renewed for the fall. Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is scheduled to deliver a more detailed revenue projection by May 22, but current estimates are putting the state at a $10 billion shortfall. 

Last week the federal CARES Act delivered $19,290,708 in relief aid to the district, but with no clear picture of how much funding NPS stands to lose from its $1.1 billion budget, it may be a drop in the bucket. 

Under the proposed pre-COVID-19 budget, Newark was looking to make much-needed investments in tech, including $1.3 million for SmartBoards. With the cost of 9,000-plus emergency Chromebooks, some donated, and WiFi hotspots, it’s unclear whether SmartBoards are still a priority. 

The district was also hoping to pump $19.6 million directly into the schools with 158 more teachers, two new schools, curriculum adoptions, special education and more. The added burden of specialized cleaning, temperature scanners, PPE, hand sanitizer and other coronavirus modifications could eclipse some of those needs now. 

NPS did not respond to comment regarding the outlook coming into focus or whether it would need to lay off staff. Superintendent Roger Leon was one of 62 members of the Council for Great City Schools to sign a letter to Congress calling for legislators to supply an additional $175 billion in Educational Stabilization Funds, $13 billion for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, $12 billion in Title I program funding, $2 billion in the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program and emergency infrastructure funds to schools. 

John Abeigon, president of Newark Teachers Union, said state and local governments should look at their own spending before dismantling fundamental infrastructure.

“Obviously, any layoffs will have a negative impact on the union and the community and schools themselves,” Abeigon said. “Every state government, every local government, I can give them a list of taxpayer-funded consultants, law firms and Wall Street firms that could all be let go way before they let go of any teachers or essential public employees.”

Locally, Newark is anticipating a $143.5 million budget shortfall and furloughs of city employees come June. It has already experienced a $7.6 million loss in property tax revenue for the quarter, although this has not impacted the municipality’s ability to make payments to the district, according to finance director Danielle Smith and budget officer Darlene Tate. 

However, the following quarter may be worse — the city has the ability to issue tax anticipation notes to assist with cash flow if the shortfall necessitates such a measure. 

In the meantime, the public, and schools themselves, have more questions than answers, namely: How do districts, especially ones serving disadvantaged communities, begin to cope with and recover from the present situation?

Recovery is anybody’s guess, but in the here and now, the ELC is advocating against cuts and making sure the federal stimulus fund is supplementary to provide extra resources for support staff and students’ digital needs, according to Farrie. 

“in the event that there are funding cuts, they need to be distributed in a progressive manner so that the districts that have the hardest time making up those revenue losses with local money suffer the least in terms of their state aid cuts,” she said.