Grappling with a massive budget shortfall, the school district faces the possibility of laying off as many as 220 employees and cut education programs implemented this academic year, said district officials on Wednesday night.
Superintendent Eileen Shafer said some of her key initiatives rolled out in 2018-19 school year may have to be scaled back. For example, she has touted the return of art and music in schools after more than two decades. Now, due to budget cuts, she may have to cut those programs.
“We set our kids up to join a band, have instruments, for a year. Then what, we’re going to take it away?” said Shafer. “It’s so unfair to those kids.”
Cuts could claim programs put in place to assist students struggling in math and reading. Budget woes may potentially delay the opening of newcomer’s high school for non-English speaking students.
“Even if it was $100,000 per person, you are looking at 220 people,” said Shafer of possible staff cuts forced by a reduced $22.2 million budget shortfall.
“Will that be teachers?” asked longtime school board member Jonathan Hodges.
“We’re not there yet. I’m just saying staff period,” replied Shafer.
Hodges said the district should avoid cutting teachers. He said the district has spent large sums of money to train teachers, who, if cut, will take their training elsewhere and benefit students in other districts.
“We’re still looking at it, but it’s going to have to be across the board, top to bottom, it cannot be all teachers,” said Shafer. “I have seen all of this for years. This is the worst I have seen it.”
Shafer said in the eight years of governor Chris Christie the school district was underfunded by $280 million which forced the layoff of 526 staff members. She said the district has yet to recover from those cuts.
She suggested a recovery was underway after governor Phil Murphy’s administration increased school aid by $20 million last year. But this year, the district is getting $13 million more in state aid as costs continue to increase.
Matthews said the district expected at least $20 million increase from the state for 2019-20 school year. State aid makes up 85-percent of the budget. State is providing $439.25 million.
The superintendent suggested the New Jersey Department of Education may be violating the state constitution.
“Forget thorough and efficient education. It’s nonexistent,” said the Shafer.
Shafer also blamed charter schools for exacerbating the district’s fiscal woes. Charter school costs increased by $9.4 million from $54.3 to $63.8 million, according to data presented to the school board.
School officials have yet to identify specific positions on the chopping block as of Wednesday night. School board members wanted a list of the positions likely to be cut.
Business administrator Richard Matthews said over the past two days his staff worked with other departments to reduce the deficit, which stood at $38.2 million on Monday, down to $22.2 million. He suggested further reductions may require cutting staff.
School board members identified less than $2 million in cuts on Wednesday night after going through a series of budget documents.
The district’s budget for school year 2019-20 stands at $542.18 million. It includes a 14-percent local property tax increase.
The school board has scheduled a special meeting for Mar. 18 at 6 p.m. at the district office for further discussions on the budget.