NEWARK, NJ — Connecting virtually from their living rooms, kitchens and home offices, the members of the Newark Board of Education met remotely last Thursday to hold their first public meeting since the coronavirus closed Central Office indefinitely.

School Business Administrator Valerie Wilson tuned in to deliver the district’s budget hearing for the fiscal year 2020-21, outlining what’s in Newark Public School’s repository and where it plans to allocate those funds in the coming school year. 

Amid the coronavirus chaos, the district’s local fair share depends on a “yes” vote from the public during this May's school board elections. The district is asking for a 2% increase in the tax levy on the district’s budget for the ensuing 2020-21 school year for a total local budget of $138,314,942.

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With campaign activities suspended and school officials’ limited in their ability to spread awareness as a result of social distancing measures, voter turnout is uncertain. In a city with a historically low voter turnout (only 5% of Newarkers cast ballots in the 2017 elections, according to the Newark Trust for Education), the general distraction of the pandemic, its financial toll and the shift to 100% mail-in ballots may have consequences. 

“Should the public turn down the budget, it involves us going before the mayor and city council and if they, in turn, turn it down, then we can appeal through the county superintendent of schools and up through the commissioner of education,” Wilson said. “But at that point, the district loses the ability to make its own cuts. That’s really important for the voting public to understand.” 

Here are the top-five snapshots from Wilson’s presentation. 

1. Funding has increased, but Newark is still below adequacy. 

State aid increased by $53.3 million (6.6%), and the local tax levy will increase by $2.7 million pending a “yes” vote from the community during the mail-in school board elections, leaving the district with a projected general fund budget of $1,035,006,000 and a total budget of $1,050,400,000. 

Despite these increases, Newark remains below adequacy according to the school funding formula, Wilson said. Adequacy is a number defined by the state to determine a district’s ability to support itself and where the funds come from.

To reach adequacy, NPS should receive $200.3 million from local tax levy and $954.3 million from the state.

“We have to do more,” Wilson said. “On the local adequacy side, we’re also going to have to do more to bring us to full adequacy. We still remain more than $62 million below the fair share.” 

2. Charter funding has increased, but NPS is budgeting based on its own trend analysis. 

The state will require NPS to pay more than $307 million to charter schools, but it budgeted for only $288 million, Wilson said, adding that there is a structural gap in the budget of about $39.8 million due in large part to charter costs. 

Year after year, charter costs increase by roughly $20.5 million, but according to Wilson, they rarely meet their projected enrollment, creating stress on NPS’s budget. 

“It creates us having to make cuts of almost another $20 million to balance, and then they don’t make their enrollment but by then we have cut programs, teachers, that may not have been necessary,” WIlson said. “Now if the money does become due, we will have to ensure that we have it somewhere to maybe the payment.”

A February report from the New Jersey Charter Schools Association and JerseyCAN claims that public renaissance and charter schools need nearly $1 billion in funding to address their facilities' needs. 

“There is an unmet need for school construction funding across the state, largely in our cities and this includes real needs for public charter and renaissance schools," JerseyCAN’s Executive Director Patricia Morgan.

3. More money will go directly to NPS schools in 2020-21

NPS is upping the ante when it comes to supporting its staff, students and programs in the coming year, with $19.6 million expected to bankroll more teachers, new schools and grade expansions, increases in premiums, curriculum adoptions, special education and more. 

Schools will have 158 more teaching positions with a net increase of 23 total positions from the 2019-20 school year. $12.3 million will go toward yearly salaries and contractual increases, $2.6 million to premium increases and $3.1 million will go toward the district’s two new schools, Sir Isaac Newton Elementary and the Newark School of Global Studies. 

Franklin, Salome Urena and Roberto Clemente Elementary Schools will expand to grade six next year, while Harriet Tubman will expand to grade seven and Newark Vocational will expand to grade 10. East Ward Elementary School will also expand to grade three.

“All these expansions will allow us to offer our students opportunities to remain in the district and choices that are good for them and their families,” Wilson said. 

4. The district is investing in tech and facility improvements.

As a result of reducing supply spending by $8 million and cutting purchase services, the district was able to put $1.3 million into Smart Boards for the district. Community members have raised the issue of inequity in technology throughout the district during public comment at past board meetings. 

“We are not impacting any programmatic areas,” said Elvis Matos, NPS budget director. “It’s not necessarily a reduction in supplies for the students, we had a $10 million adoption between math and literacy. We’re not going to have to do that again next year, so we use those dollars to do other things in the district where it’s needed.” 

Chromebooks are another piece of the schools' tech investment strategy, which Wilson said was done to help balance the budget. However, the investment was a strain due to the fact that the district does not have a capital budget. 

“We have allocated funding to work on things, and we’ve had the capital reserve. We’re going to draw against now to offset the costs of Newark Vocational,” Wilson said. “If we didn’t have that, we’d be $4.5 million short, managing our financial risks based on the uncertainty we will have and what the budget is for the present and the future.”

5. The state’s school funding formula must be revised for NPS to receive additional monies.

According to New Jersey’s School Funding Reform Act, districts must be at adequacy before they can receive additional funding. The state, which never fully funded the 2007 funding formula, is only now beginning to increase its share. 

While the state's funding has increased, Wilson said that when it does arrive at adequacy, the district will not get anything if the funding formula is not revised. According to the current formula, the district would have to ensure local fair share, which would mean $200.3 in local taxes. 

“The state is sort of chipping away at that gap,” Matos said. “At some point, we’re going to have to come to the table to close that gap as a district by addressing the tax levy increases. Secondly, referring to the structural deficit, that $39.8 million that we balanced would have been basically $57.8 million if we had budgeted the full amount for those charter schools.”