A year ago it seemed inevitable that the pandemic would destroy the school budget.
Instead, Newark schools are now ready to come out of the crisis with better financial health than before. For the next school year, the district’s budget will approach $ 1.1 billion – an increase of nearly $ 42 million from last year – and that doesn’t include the massive infusion of pandemic aid money en route to Newark.
“This year is going to be a good year for us,” said Valerie Wilson, the district’s school business administrator, at a budget hearing on Wednesday.
How did the district fare so well?
Like other states, New Jersey avoided the fiscal disaster many feared at the start of the pandemic, after government revenues recovered faster than expected, the initial US economic dollar kicked in, and the state raised some taxes and borrowed money. As a result, Governor Phil Murphy’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year is to increase spending on education by 7%.
The result for Newark is more state aid and a huge inflow of federal funds. In return, the district can hire more teachers, open new schools, and invest in programs like summer schools and mental health services, which are vital for students to recover from the pandemic.
On April 20, Newark voters will decide whether or not to approve the district’s budget for fiscal year 2021-22. Here are some highlights.
Newark schools get a lot more money.
The district expects to receive $ 915 million in state aid for the next school year – a huge increase of $ 86 million.
The 10% increase in funding is part of Murphy’s proposed spending plan, which has yet to be approved by lawmakers. It’s a U-turn from last spring when the pandemic forced Murphy to scrap a proposed school increase and leave Newark County with $ 36 million less than expected. (Even as the next fiscal year rebounds, Newark will remain nearly $ 148 million below funding required under a landmark court order requiring New Jersey to provide more money to underfunded districts.)
The governor “fulfilled his commitment that he would raise funds for districts that were severely underfunded,” said Wilson.
More good news: unlike many districts, the Newark pandemic did not cause a drop in enrollments. Enrollment remained unchanged in the fall at around 46,500 students, which is in line with the district’s budget, meaning no funding per student was lost. The district also cut certain costs, including employee benefit awards, by approximately $ 2 million for the next year.
A nearly $ 42 million increase in net sales will help offset growing expenses, including higher salaries and payments for charter schools. Newark Public Schools budget presentation
After accounting for new spending (more on that later), the district had a planned budget of $ 1.08 billion for the next fiscal year – a net increase of $ 42 million.
But wait – there is more!
The budget doesn’t include nearly $ 89 million in federal funds that the district has received or expects to receive through the first two coronavirus aid packages. The district has already spent some of the money on pandemic costs – student laptops, protective gear, cleaning supplies, ventilation upgrades, and more – but it will likely have some leftover funds for the next school year.
Meanwhile, Congress passed a huge stimulus bill this month that will send nearly $ 2.8 billion more to schools in New Jersey. District assignments have not been announced, but are expected to be more than twice the size of the districts included in the last aid package. That means Newark could consider another $ 177 million.
More money = more spending.
The boost in government funding will allow Newark to make some large investments. They include:
- $ 13 million extra for the school budget,
- $ 10 million more for school support such as building maintenance and catering services,
- $ 4.5 million in expenses related to three new schools that opened this fall.
- $ 5 million for supplies such as new textbooks and smart boards; also a significant addition to the bilingual programs that were being scrutinized by the federal government for failing to meet student needs,
- $ 900,000 more for staff training, including how to support student emotional wellbeing during and after the pandemic;
- and more than 100 additional school staff, including teachers and administrators.
“We are happy with the new budget,” said the president of the school board, Josephine Garcia, “which enables us to improve our schools – which was long overdue.”
In other welcome news for Newark residents, the additional state aid will also deter the district from increasing the local school tax levy.
A larger part of the funds goes to charter schools.
The district predicts that $ 300 million of the district budget will go to charter schools – an increase of $ 18 million this fiscal year.
Newark Charter Schools are attended by more than 20,000 students, funded by the district budget. (Under state law, districts retain 10% of the funding for charter schools per student to cover fixed costs such as building maintenance that remain in place even after students leave.)
Wilson, the school business administrator, cited two reasons for the sharp rise in charter payments.
First, she said the state had increased the dollar amount per student. Second, she said that enrollment in the charter school had increased. Although Governor Murphy’s Education Commissioner recently turned down requests from several charter schools to continue growing, earlier expansion plans approved by the state under former Governor Chris Christie, who campaigned for the school’s election, will allow them to get more seats next year Add.
The salaries go up.
Employee compensation is always the district’s largest expense, increasing by $ 15.4 million.
New hires and increases in salaries for teachers are responsible for the increase. The total cost of salaries and benefits after charter payments will exceed $ 583 million, or more than three quarters of the district budget.
Also a raise: Superintendent Roger León. His base salary will exceed $ 282,000, according to budget documents – $ 22,000 more than this school year.
The district is looking for more students – and funding.
Less than three years after his tenure as headmaster, León has a mission to expand the district.
He opened two schools this fall, will open three more in the next school year, and is planning even more across the board. At the same time, he is conducting a legal battle for the recovery of former district properties in which the new schools can be housed.
The aggressive growth is reflected in the budget in costly building upgrades, dozens of new employee positions, and legal fees. But León is betting that the investment will pay off in the long term. If the district’s new and expanded schools prevent families from choosing other options – private, charter, or county schools – the district’s enrollment and budget will increase.
“We want to develop world-class programs that actually attract students from other districts,” Wilson said at the budget hearing. “We will compete against each other and keep our children.”