If Jersey City school children want to go on school trips this year, they won't get any help from the Board of Education. They'll just have to raise the money themselves.
They also won't be able to participate in more serious academic programs like weekend seminars that help students bone up for state-mandated assessment tests. They won't have access to school clinics that provide social services to children from distressed families, either.
The Board of Education [BOE] doesn't have the money to pay for the programs. They were cut because the state-allocated budget that keeps the Jersey City school system afloat was $26.1 million short of what is needed to keep things running.
So in an attempt to get the money they need, the district is suing the state.
The lawsuit, however, isn't going so well for the district. Sitting in Newark, Administrative Law Judge Stephen Weiss last week issued an opinion generally supporting the state's budget for Jersey City, saying the BOE should tighten its belt and find cheaper sources for the services they need.
Weiss' ruling, now on its way to state Department of Education Commissioner William Librera, will either be approved or denied in 20 days.
Regardless of what Librera says in response to Weiss' ruling, the Jersey City school district will appeal the ruling, school district attorney Charlotte Kitler said this week. If all goes well, the case will be heard in the Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court before the onset of the holiday season.
Larger issue at hand
But the lawsuit isn't simply questioning the state's practice in allocating money, Kitler said. It calls into question the state's adherence to the New Jersey Supreme Court's 1998 Abbott v. Burke decision, which mandates that urban school districts spend the same as the state's richest school districts. The decision also forces districts to make inroads in early childhood programming and whole education reform.
One year after the Abbott requirements were issued, the Jersey City school district followed through by implementing programs to meet them, school board member Suzanne Mack said. At that point, the state kicked in approximately $50 million to Jersey City's educational budget to pay for the programs.
But after four years of aligning its operations to satisfy court mandates (which has increased the amount the district must spend), the state isn't giving the BOE enough money to pay its bills, business administrator Joanne Gilman said. In addition, uncontrollable costs due to inflation have aggravated the problem.
"We're staring in the face of a shortfall," Kitler said Wednesday. "We're trying to trim anywhere we possibly can to avoid layoffs. We're cutting down on travel and on meetings where you would have to pay stipends for teachers. We're looking at class counts to see if we can consolidate and reassign a teacher. We're also trying to move things around so that we might charge some of the special education tuition to federal monies."
Added Kitler, "We're still looking and trying to cut spending short of cutting staff."
Struggle for maintenance
The three line items in question are the BOE's "maintenance" budget, what it pays for custodians and what it sets aside for price increases due to inflation.
The maintenance budget is the amount of money the district needs to maintain ongoing costs, business administrator Gilman said. As a benchmark to determine one year's maintenance budget, the state uses what the BOE spent last year, minus any money that was either not spent or was used for one-time expenses.
In Jersey City's case, the state trimmed approximately $23 million from the maintenance budget, citing salaries from unfilled positions and other items that were deemed one-shot expenses.
The BOE, however, denied that those items were one-time expenses. Gilman said they are an important part of the district's core services.
"We hired crisis intervention teachers, special education teachers and support services to reduce class sizes," she said. "What do you do with them all? It's not like these are one-shot expenses like books. These are recurring expenses. How do you fund them next year?"
The state shouldn't have even touched Jersey City's maintenance budget to begin with, and it should have looked at other ways of making ends meet, Gilman added. But neither Weiss nor any other administrative law judge can decide whether maintenance budgets are off-limits. The matter will have to be heard by a higher court in order to be settled.
Salaries and radon
How much the school district spends for its custodians is another point of contention. In determining how much the Jersey City BOE should spend for custodial services, the state used an "industry standard" that measures the amount of square footage one custodian can cover. After taking Jersey City's total square footage into account, state budgeters applied the ratio and saw that Jersey City was asking for an excess of approximately $2.1 million in custodial salaries.
Local officials, however, complained the state's assessment of Jersey City's custodial staff was faulty on two points. They first questioned the "industry standard," which local officials said came from a less-than-scientific article in American School and University, a monthly education publication for administrative, business and facilities-management personnel.
The second point was that the state used outdated square footage figures from 1998-1999. Jersey City's total square footage, totaling approximately 4 million square feet, had increased by 400,000, according to Gilman.
"Trailers have been added and new facilities have been leased," she said. "Based on the additional square footage, we should've increased the staff by 22. If we apply the square footage that the district actually uses, it accounts for all the 53 custodians that the district was 'in excess.'"
The last point was for approximately $1 million in additional and "inflationary" increases, attorney Kitler said. The point to be argued in court is in what can be considered a "cost-driver," an expense whose price will invariably rise due to inflation and normal market forces.
Local officials argue that the increase of approximately $700,000 in physicians' salaries and $300,000 for newly state-mandated radon testing are cost-drivers. Both the state and Administrative Law Judge Weiss disagree.
Weiss was quoted in published reports as saying in his opinion that the Jersey City school district can both delay the radon testing for a year and find cheaper doctors.
The only issue on which Weiss seemed sympathetic with the local district was on the cost of custodians, which he said the state should review if "time and circumstances" permit. He also publicly conceded that the sources for the state's "industry standard" were rather vague, attorney Kitler said.
Department of Education Spokesman Jon Zlock declined to comment over the phone and then did not respond to an e-mail and follow-up call by the Jersey City Reporter.
As the district gears up to challenge Weiss' opinion at a higher level, Jersey City school administrators are scrambling to keep the school system afloat without having to resort to layoffs.
The district's dire situation is further compounded by the fact that the school system is an "Abbott district," making it impossible to creatively work around budget woes because of restrictions in the way the BOE spends its money.
"They're restricting what they're giving us and they're restricting what we're spending," business administrator Gilman said. "As an Abbott district, you're restricted. You can't transfer from instructional accounts to non-instructional accounts. You can't do that unless you write to the commissioner and ask for approval."
School board members reiterated the idea that what they are contesting is money used for day-to-day operations, not money set aside as a "cushion."
"It's real money, not fake money," school board member Mack said. "In this budget, they're taking away real money, not the cushion. They've cut out everything."