Monday, June 14, 2010

Appeals Court Affirms Gov. Christie's Education Spending Plan

Gov. Chris Christie had called on localities to spend down their surplus education funds as part of his plan to close a massive state deficit. That move prompted a lawsuit by some school districts, and the resulting appeal has found in favor of Gov. Christie.
In February, the Republican governor ordered the freeze of $475 million in school aid payments in 2010 by requiring districts to use their excess surplus instead of state aid. The cuts were made at the time to help plug a deficit in this year's budget. Christie has had to cut more than $2 billion from this year's budget to keep it balanced.

In addition to the $475 million in cuts this year, Christie slashed education money for the next budget year, which starts on July 1, by nearly $1 billion -- $820 million for K-12 schools and $175 million for higher education.

A large part of this year's cuts involved withholding money from schools that have budget surpluses. All but 17 of the state's 581 districts have surplus money.

According to an Associated Press analysis, on average, schools lost 13 percent of their total 2010 annual state aid. More than 100 districts lost all state aid for the remainder of the year, and more than 100, mostly suburban, lost 30 percent or more of their state aid.

The Perth Amboy school district, which lost $15 million in state aid, or 12 percent of the $126 million in state aid that it received in 2010, filed the lawsuit. Only one other district, Union City in Hudson County, lost more in state dollars: $29 million.

Perth Amboy superintendent John M. Rodecker said he was still reviewing the decision but was disappointed with the court's finding.

The surplus money was going to be used for the 2010-2011 school year, he said. As a result of the surplus cuts and the additional cuts in next year's budget, he said the district has cut $8 million from next year's school budget and put a freeze on all spending.

Items such as computer equipment that the district planned to purchase will be put on hold, he said, and 85 positions -- 30 of them teachers, the rest support staff -- have been cut from the district's 11 schools for the coming school year, he said.
Districts were informed to either use the surplus money or find other sources so as to close the state and local budgets for the current year, which was in serious financial trouble. Next year's budget isn't any better, but the problem isn't the lack of taxes, but a continued problem with spending.

Discussing the number of positions cut doesn't mean much without knowing a few other facts such as teacher-student ratios, the number of administrative staff, and whether you can discern whether a given district is overly laden with administrative costs that detract from the amount of money that actually goes into the classrooms for education.

In Perth Amboy's case, they not only cut teacher positions and support staff, but raised taxes on average $155 per household. That's in a budget of $184.9 million for the 2010-2011 school year.

The budget is here. With 9,602 students expected in the school system, the budget indicates that $14,768 is expected to be spent on per student. That's about $800 less than the amount spent for 2009-2010, but it's $600 more than two years and $1,000 more than three years ago. The key is on page 3 of the pdf. The percentage going to benefits keeps rising as well.

From the looks of it, the district has a lot more room to cut, and that they could have held the line on spending in the past two years. However, there has been an influx of students into the district, but that could have been absorbed without the major increases seen.

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