The city’s school district is faced with a $45 million budget shortfall in its 2016-17 budget, said district officials on Wednesday night.
“Filling that gap for the coming year is our major task,” said state-appointed district superintendent Donnie Evans. He presented the board with a bulleted list of items the district may potentially cut to extract $53.7 million in savings to close the shortfall.
The list includes reduction in central office staff, restructuring of services contracts, sale of school owned property, closing of school buildings, and reducing facilities lease agreements.
Flavio Rivera, school board member, pointed out the district may not be able to generate $5 million by selling one of its property. The district has thought of selling its former headquarter building on Church Street.
Evans said there was an interested buyer. He said the district will have to check if that buyer is still interested in the property.
The superintendent said the district may close three antiquated schools. He said School 11 on Market Street will be one of them, but would not name the other two.
Rivera suggested the district explore closing underutilized schools to extract savings. Linda Reid, head of the Parent Education Organizing Council (PEOC), said closing down old schools is acceptable so long as it does not displace students and force them to attend school outside of their neighborhoods.
Other school board members and education advocates expressed great concerns over the cuts.
“I don’t see room to cut anything,” said an incensed Jonathan Hodges, school board member. He said a third of city students in the third grade do not read at grade level. “This is a disgrace when you look at what we have educationally.”
School board president Christopher Irving pointed out only one program is being cut and he noted the district won’t be doing a large scale layoff as was done at the end of the last school year.
Evans would not name the program being cut.
“We’re going to do our very best not to touch a single classroom,” said Evans.
“There’s no way to cut $45 million without impacting classrooms,” added Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, an advocacy. She said students are already going without librarians, art teachers, and music teachers.
Grant suggested the school board consider filing in court against the state for underfunding the district. Local schools have been underfunded by $173.8 million over the past six years, according to the Education Law Center.
The state’s education commissioner David Hespe admitted the district is underfunded at a community forum late last year.
The district expects to receive a flat figure from the state this year, said officials. Hodges said the insufficient funding of the district by the state is reversing the gains the made over the past half-decade.
Evans’ list of potential budget reduction strategies also includes increasing local tax levy. However, next to the spot on the bullet item, where the dollar figure is listed for other items, contains a question mark.
The district last year unsuccessfully attempted procure $5 million in revenue by raising taxes on property owners. Municipal officials pushed back and the plan was dropped.
The city’s property owners have the second highest housing cost burden in the state, according to a study released earlier in the year.
School officials said the district will have a budget document by the first week of March. Evan’s savings strategies were not specific, but a general outline of where the district can potentially cut. He said specific cuts will be discussed at a future school board meeting.