WEST ORANGE, NJ — After Gov. Phil Murphy announced that approximately $335 million has been cut from his original school-funding proposal as a result of the financial impact of the pandemic, West Orange Public Schools (WOPS) Superintendent Dr. J. Scott Cascone had an optimistic outlook on the revised proposal, stating that reduction is not as steep as the district expected and explaining how another federal grant will help offset the loss of state aid.

According to the state, the proposed reductions affect the WOPS district as follows:

  • Original WOPS funding proposal: $16,176,168
  • Revised WOPS funding proposal: $14,623,330
  • Total reduction: $1,552,838

“We’re happy that at least we’ve received this information relatively early because the worst-case scenario that we were projecting was that we wouldn't have this information until potentially the late summer, which would have been really tough,” said Cascone. “You never like to know that you're going to have funding cut, but I think that there were contingencies being discussed whereby we were going to lose even more than this, so what we lost was essentially the additional state aid that we had been allocated just year over the amount that we had in the past.”

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Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the governor had proposed a significant increase in school funding to hundreds of New Jersey districts like West Orange, which would have seen an increase of approximately $2.5 million in state aid compared to the 2019-2020 school year.

Although the reductions will likely cause many districts to need to cut costs since most New Jersey districts have already adopted budgets based on the original state aid proposal, the governor reiterated that many districts are still receiving additional or equal funding compared to last year.

“West Orange was one of the districts that was on the path to having their aid adjusted positively so that more of our budget could be funded by state aid as opposed to the local tax levy,” said Cascone. “I think the fact that [the reduction only came from] the additional money is, on some level, better than some of the contingencies that we had been starting to plan for, which could have been somewhere in the neighborhood of about $6.5 million in cuts that we would have had to figure out.”

The revised state funding proposal comes during a time when districts need to consider the unexpected expenses of remote learning as well as the added cost of safety precautions and social-distancing protocols that might be in place when schools reopen. However, some of these costs could be offset by funding received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that was signed into effect on May 14.

Under the CARES Act, an Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSERF) was established to help support K-12 school districts in certain areas that have been impacted by the disruption and closure of schools, such as funds needed to provide devices to students and resources for teachers.

According to the state department of education, West Orange is eligible for a total of $749,910 through the ESSERF, with about $650,000 available for the public school district and the remainder to be distributed between non-public schools located within the municipality.

“We're working through some different options to make up for the [state aid] reduction, but we will also get about $650,000 through the CARES Act grant, which will be able to offset that,” said Cascone. “When you add that total in, then we're really looking more at [a reduction] of about a $100,000 that we have to find, and we're optimistic that we will be able to do that without having to make any additional cuts to staff.”

Cascone explained that WOPS administrators are currently deliberating how the district might spend the CARES Act funds according the guidelines explained at the end of the article. He stated that although the guidelines “are very flexible,” the challenge lies in the uncertainty of what school will look like in September.

“If, for example, one of the guidelines that we get is that every student needs to be equipped with ‘X’ number of masks per week, that could be our responsibility to provide those for students who don’t have them,” he said. “So if kids need to be given at least two masks every week for 40 weeks, then we’ll probably be spending a good portion of that money on masks—but we don’t know that.

“We also know that there might be very well be some physical plant needs where we need to install plexiglass dividers and things of that nature; but in the absence of clear guidelines, we don’t know the extent to which we would need to do that.”

In the immediate future, Cascone said the district plans to utilize some of the CARES Act funds toward “family assistance programs” such as nutritional support over the summer as well as additional cleaning supplies to sanitize buildings and partially subsidize additional overtime that might be needed for custodial staff to help get the buildings ready for the reopening.

He added that the district has "not needed to allocate any additional funding above and beyond the existing technology budget in order to meet the needs” of remote learning.

“There's no question that we'll be able to offset some of that lost funding with the CARES Act funding,” he said. “At the beginning of the closure, we pushed out a lot of technology and we are leaving that technology in the hands of the students over the summer—with the exception of the seniors—so that there isn't the need to collect and redistribute in the fall. We also have an existing maintenance budget, so the extent to which we would need above and beyond that, we could basically reduce our fiscal year budget and shift the CARES Act money into that.”

Districts must apply for the CARES Act funds no later than June 19, 2020, and the funds can be used for allowable costs incurred on or after March 13, 2020.

The ESSERF provided guidelines for allowable expenditures of the funds, which have been categorized as follows:

  1. Activities authorized under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act or the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act.
  2. Coordination of preparedness and response efforts of local educational agencies with State, local, Tribal and territorial public health departments, and other relevant agencies, to improve coordinated responses among such entities to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.
  3. Providing principals and others school leaders with the resources necessary to address the needs of their individual schools.
  4. Activities to address the unique needs of low-income children or students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth, including how outreach and service delivery will meet the needs of each population.
  5. Developing and implementing procedures and systems to improve the preparedness and response efforts of local educational agencies.
  6. Training and professional development for staff of the local educational agency on sanitation and minimizing the spread of infectious diseases.
  7. Purchasing supplies to sanitize and clean the facilities of a local educational agency, including buildings operated by such agency.
  8. Planning for and coordinating during long-term closures, including for how to provide meals to eligible students, how to provide technology for online learning to all students, how to provide guidance for carrying out requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. 1401 et seq.) and how to ensure other educational services can continue to be provided consistent with all Federal, State, and local requirements.
  9. Purchasing educational technology (including hardware, software, and connectivity) for students who are served by the local educational agency that aids in regular and substantive educational interaction between students and their classroom instructors, including low-income students and students with disabilities, which may include assistive technology or adaptive equipment.
  10. Providing mental health services and supports.
  11. Planning and implementing activities related to summer learning and supplemental afterschool programs, including providing classroom instruction or online learning during the summer months and addressing the needs of low-income students, students with disabilities, English learners, migrant students, students experiencing homelessness, and children in foster care.
  12. Other activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency.

The one-time appropriation may be used to address the impact that COVID-19 has had, and continues to have, on elementary and secondary schools, which includes:

  • Continuing to provide educational services while schools are closed, such as remote learning; and
  • Developing and implementing plans for the return to normal operations.

As per the CARES Act criteria, “control of funds for services and assistance provided to non-public school students and teachers under the CARES Act programs—and title to materials, equipment and property purchased with such funds—must be in a public agency, and a public agency must administer such funds, materials, equipment and property.”