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Westfield Loses $4.22 Million in State Education Aid

Schundler defends cuts, saying they will help control property taxes, won't hurt education.

The state Department of Education announced Wednesday that Westfield will lose just over $4.22 million in state education aid for the coming fiscal year.

The numbers, posted late Wednesday afternoon on the department's Web site, call for a 90-percent decrease in state aid from the current budget. State aid will decrease by $4,222,169 in the coming year, a figure which represents 4.99-percent of the Board of Education's current $88 million budget. State aid for next year will be $448,345. This figure excludes over $7 million in specialized state aid used for debt service, Social Security payroll taxes, etc.

Wednesday's figures added specifics to Gov. Chris Christie's announcement Tuesday of broad cuts in state aid for local school districts. Board of Education officials have said they were preparing to find ways to cut the budget based on an anticipated state aid cut, but their expectations were of cuts much less than what the governor is proposing. The governor's proposal is to cut aid by up to five percent of the total school budget. School districts had previously been planning on a scenerio of a loss of up to 15-percent in total state aid from last year. In Westfield's case, the 15-percent equaled roughly $750,000, which the district had already budgeted for.

State Education Commissioner Bret Schundler defended the increased cuts in a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. He said the state as a whole would not be seeing large cuts in the change of the formula from 15-percent to five percent. He avoided discussing individual districts and the cuts, stressing the overall aid figure.

"Districts had the understanding that it would be 15-percent and it is a number that is less than that," Schundler said.

Schundler placed the blame for the state aid reductions for school districts at the feet of previous Democratic administrations and the reduction of $1 billion in federal stimulus aid from President Barack Obama. The federal aid was from last year's stimulus package and used partially for state aid payments. The federal aid was meant as a one-time payment to states.

Schundler defended the cuts by saying that the state legislature can avert layoffs at the school district level by implementing Christie's package of public employee reforms in a quick time frame. The package includes changing the pension and health benefits packages for teachers, including requiring co-pays and larger payments for pensions. The co-pays will apply to school personnel who retire after the changes are made, but not to those who leave their jobs before the proposals are enacted.

Schundler said this will allow for more quick retirements from teachers who do not want to pay part of their health insurance in retirement. He said quick enactment, which is not considered likely, will help stem the expected layoffs in school districts statewide.

"That will dramactically reduce the number of personnel reductions that would be achieved through a layoff," he said. "These reforms will reduce costs to the districts and create a need for early retirements."

In addition, Christie has proposed a constitutional amendment requiring a two and a half percent cap on property tax payments. That amendment could not become law until the end of the year at the earliest.

Schundler, a former Jersey City mayor, said the cuts will exclude a large aid reduction for charter schools. A charter school advocate dating back to his mayoralty in the 1990s, Schundler said the small charter school aid reduction is in line with state laws regarding aid to the specialized schools that operate outside the school districts with public assistance.

In addition, Schundler noted the charter schools largely service urban communities including Newark, Camden and Jersey City, where he believes they provide greater educational opportunities for students. During a campaign stop last year at Westfield High School, Christie proposed a greater empathsis on urban education, including working with charter schools.

Schundler believes that school districts can accomplish the cuts by the March 30 deadline for school budgets to be submitted for voter approval. He said he has instructed county superintendents to throughly review each school district budget and be prepared to make line item vetos in order to make further reductions before the budgets go to the voters on April 20. State law allows county superintendents to make these vetos.

Westfield will have the option to raise property taxes above the four percent state cap in order to make up the lost school aid. Board of Education officials have indicated this is unlikely given the need to seek voter approval of the budget. Schundler said the county superintendents will be looking to hold property tax hikes under the four percent cap and are prepared to veto spending over this amount.

Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan and BOE Business Administrator Robert Berman have been in emergency meetings all day with district supervisors and union leaders in an attempt to find ways to reduce costs in the budget to make up for the dramatic reduction in state aid. Dolan said on Tuesday evening this will include a close review of each line item in the budget and potential layoffs. The board's finance committee is meeting Thursday night to discuss the budget cuts. The board has meetings scheduled the next two Tuesdays to discuss the cuts.

Board of Education members appeared visibly shaken by the governor's announcement on Tuesday night and said they had to figure out how to make the necessary cuts without making cuts to the quality of education in the school districts. Several board members described the cuts from Christie as "Draconian."

In his conference call, Schundler defended the new state aid numbers, saying that Christie did not cut the overall figure, but describing the cuts as coming from the loss in the federal stimulus aid. He said this shows a commitment to education by the governor, who has been called anti-teacher by union officials.

"What this highlights is the priority the Christie administration has put on school aid," Schundler said. "That says a lot about the governor's commitment to education."

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