Our State budget is the blueprint of our collective priorities.
The statewide membership of the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association (NJPSA) believes that New Jersey’s school students must continue to be a state priority. We understand how difficult times can make budgeting choices next to impossible as our members engage in such triage decision-making at the school and district level in tight budget years. We do not envy the difficult decisions that you face this year in developing and enacting a State Budget for FY 2021 that meets the breadth of needs of New Jersey citizens. The comprehensive societal, economic, public health, and educational impacts of the COVID -19 pandemic are still playing out in our state; yet you must act to address not only the losses that have already occurred, but to move our state forward to a better place.
In this context, NJPSA must voice its support and appreciation for key aspects of Governor Murphy’s revised Budget Proposal for FY 2021 that impact public education and the school community. We also have several recommendations for your consideration and one area of major concern – the elimination of funding for much-needed School-Based Youth Services.
In a time of significantly reduced state revenues, we appreciate the fact that public education will receive stable funding in the Governor’s proposed budget.
The Governor has maintained the state aid figures that were previously announced in July to districts in their state aid notices. We appreciate the sustained and stable investment in New Jersey’s public schools.
These aid figures followed, in part, the previously negotiated funding path set forth in S-2 (P.L. 2018, c. 67) which updated the school funding formula to adjust for enrollment and the continued phase-out of Adjustment Aid, a category of hold harmless aid that the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 anticipated to be phased out as the formula was fully funded. Although these state aid numbers did not include the full increase in formula aid negotiated in S-2 for this year to reach full funding over the seven years period, state aid did continue the reallocation of formula aid from “overfunded” to “underfunded” districts as set forth in S-2. This translates into two thirds of New Jersey’s districts receiving an increase in formula aid and about 196 districts experiencing anticipated cuts in state aid.
This is a difficult time for any school district to operate with state aid cuts when the need for safety is a top priority, when learning challenges are widespread and the additional costs of technology, staffing and safety needs were not fairly anticipated when budgets were struck at the start of the year. We are concerned about school districts that are not yet budgeting to the state approved “adequacy level” determined by the law as necessary to meet New Jersey’s State Learning Standards. Many of these districts, characterized by low socioeconomics and high student needs, have been particularly hard hit during the pandemic.
Originally, the Governor’s Budget Proposal offered a one-time remedy of $50 million in “Stabilization Aid” this year to assist districts losing aid under S2 to transition to sustainable budgeting without raising local property taxes. This funding has been eliminated in the Revised Budget, yet the spending cuts remain. As you consider the overall budget picture, we ask you to consider restoring some level of stabilization aid to these hard-hit districts. This form of aid does recognize the disproportionate impact that any cuts, even those that were anticipated, will have on any school district at this difficult economic time. It also will assist our taxpayers at this challenging time.
Although our long-term goal is for full funding of our school funding formula for all school districts when our citizens and economy recover, we appreciate the fact that the Governor’s recommended budget did not cut school districts’ aid figures from the July numbers. This has provided the opportunity for some level of planning and follow through on necessary purchasing at a time when the rules and needs keep changing for school leaders as they work to reopen their schools.
Extraordinary Special Education Aid
An important form of aid that assists all school districts is the pot of aid funding the extraordinary costs of special education used to cover high cost placements or costs funding services needed by students with multiple disabilities. These students need these programs and services to function and learn. Federal law mandates their
provision. The proposed budget maintains last year’s important increase in this pot of funding for districts and we appreciate the effort to keep this funding stable for our students who have significant needs. Students with disabilities faced the greatest challenges in continuing their learning when schools moved to remote learning in March. If additional revenue sources are identified to assist school districts, funding this type of categorical aid will assist all New Jersey districts and their budgeting options.
Preschool Funding and Expansion
NJPSA understands the critical link between high quality preschool programs and lifetime success in learning. New Jersey has much to be proud of in this area. We are a national leader for our preschool model and we applaud the continued investment in our public preschool program with a total increase of $68 million this fiscal year. We support the opportunity for new programs to develop at a time when a good start to education is more important than ever. The budget proposal includes $10 million within the preschool budget line for these new opportunities for our youngest students.
We fully support the direction of much-needed funding for PPE, safety equipment, facilities modifications and technology to safely reopen schools this fall.
NJPSA is extremely thankful for the Governor’s announced allocation of $100 million from the State’s federal CARES Act funding to finance school district costs related to safely reopening schools. Although not a state budget item per se, this funding is essential to all districts. As stated, districts struck their budgets before this pandemic hit us fully. A national study conducted by the Association of School Business Officials International and the American Association of School Administrators, found that school districts nationwide can expect to spend about $490.00 more per pupil to cover costs of PPE, healthcare supplies, sanitizing supplies, health and custodial staff alone. This does not account for the additional costs of modifications to the building to ensure student and staff safety as envisioned in The Road Back, Restart and Recovery Plan for Education issued by the NJ Department of Education in June. This report sets forth some guidelines and options for districts to consider, including the modifications of building spaces, installation of plexiglass and the like to assist in social distancing for student and staff safety in school buildings. All of these options cost money that was not reasonably anticipated. Recent estimates on modifications to HVAC systems alone are ranging from $30.00 to $50.00 per square foot in our buildings just for installation. Many districts are delaying the start of in-person instruction due to their inability to afford necessary HVAC modifications to ensure a safe air flow level in their buildings to a calendar date when air conditioning will not be necessary.
Similarly, we fully support the Governor’s initiatives with the private sector and philanthropic community and the announced use of federal funding for the purchase of technology and connectivity for students as a foundation for remote learning. For many districts, remote learning is the opening option of the school year. No student should be without a personal device to learn. It is simply a basic learning tool of our times and New Jersey must step up to provide devices and reliable connectivity for every student.
A Continued Commitment to Educators
NJPSA members are thankful to both Governor Murphy and the State Legislature for your mutual commitment to continue on the funding pathway negotiated to restore public employee pensions to solvency. Our members have committed their careers to serving New Jersey’s students and we appreciate the State’s leadership honoring its commitment to funding their pensions in this budget. We urge you to maintain the pension payment set forth in the Governor’s Budget proposal to support not only public employees but a solid credit rating for out state.
Other Initiatives – Lead Remediation A Critical Investment Issues such as the lead remediation program, addressing school security needs as required by Alyssa’s Law, computer science grant programs, teacher diversification grants, and STEM programs are all important initiatives that receive some level of funding under the Governor’s proposal. They are all worthy initiatives already underway. The lead remediation program investment of a million dollars is critical to continue efforts to address the significant negative effects of lead on health and learning. This is a major state issue that deserves prompt and sustained attention and funding due to the potential lifelong impacts on our children.
Cutting School Based Youth Services Funding
Another area of major concern for our members is the cutting of approximately $11 million in funding for School Based Youth Services Programs funded under the Department of Children and Families (DCF). For about 30 years, School Based Youth Services have provided much-needed counseling services at the school site to students. The funding provides staff and counselors, often through an outside provider, who address student emotional and mental health needs, substance abuse issues, family issues, student assault issues, pregnancy prevention, grief counseling, peer counseling, anger management and suicide prevention services in about 100 school districts. I have attached the testimony of Ralph Aiello, Principal of Cumberland Regional High School who describes the priceless contribution of this program to the students in his high school for the past 14 years.
The proposed budget eliminates the funding stream for this program. Instead, DCF is slated to receive a $45 million increase to that Department’s budget to support its program of supporting children, the NJ Children’s System of Care. DCF has effectively used this system of care to support children and adolescents with behavioral health needs and/or intellectual and developmental disabilities. It appears from a recent statement released by DCF on this issue that the $45 million increase “will allow for updated rates to providers for their critical services and to provide the crucial care and assistance families may need, in coordination and collaboration with local providers and Family Support Organizations statewide.” The statement also says that DCF is committed to working with the NJDOE and school districts to promote the NJ System of Care as an alternative to School Based Youth Services.
While we support the excellent work of DCF in this area, we are concerned that this System of Care will not provide services on site to students. We are also unsure of its immediate capacity to handle student needs in our buildings in the time of COVID 19. In our experience, many school districts do not have the extensive network of providers available to students that DCF asserts is available. In fact, recent legislation introduced by Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald recognizes the need for a statewide survey of mental health providers statewide to identify service gap areas (A 4436/S-2718) Additionally, there are issues of insurance faced by many families that can become barriers to care. When counseling services are directly provided at school, where students are for the vast majority of their day, they are more likely to take advantage of the program and get the help they need. This is not the time to fundamentally change student mental health services programs that work when students are arriving at school with more needs than ever before. It is our understanding that the counselors working on site in these programs are already receiving lay off notices before the school year begins.
For this reason, we urge the Legislature to maintain funding for School Based Youth Services programs. We understand that the loss of this $11 million dollars triggers a parallel loss of $11 million federal dollars for this program. We ask you to investigate this issue, learn how the federal dollars are being reallocated and if the DCF intends to guarantee the level of programs and services that School Based Youth Services provided to the entire student population of a school at the school building site. Our students have been through so much this past year and need these services more than ever. By offering the services on site, schools can reach students more readily. At a minimum, this is an issue that needs more exploration to ensure that the wellness needs of our students are met in our schools.
Thank you for your consideration of the recommendations of the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association.
Submitted by: Debra J. Bradley, Esq., Director of Government Relations