As Much as Money, Abbott Districts Need Spending Guidelines

June 22, 2011

Next year's school budgets have already been struck, and districts across New Jersey are planning how to best put to work the money they've been allocated.

Most districts, that is.

At least for the moment, the future is less certain for the 31 so-called Abbott Districts. They know a windfall is coming their way, their share of the $447 million in aid awarded by the state Supreme Court in its latest ruling in the epic Abbott v. Burke case. They even know, thanks to fairly accurate estimates, how much they'll be getting.

What they don't know is how they can spend the money. And it doesn't appear as if they'll be getting guidelines from the state anytime soon which has left them in planning limbo.

A Case Study

Elizabeth is a good case in point of an Abbott district uncertain about moving ahead without guidelines.

According to estimates made by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services (OLS), Elizabeth should receive almost $82 in additional funding.

It's a sizable amount, and according to district officials it would go a long way to restoring the nearly 500 positions they've cut in the past two years: 300 jobs last year and another 170 this coming year.

"First and foremost, this provides us the ability to restore personnel and services we were forced to reduce in the last two years,” said Olga Hugelmeyer, the district’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning.

Hugelmeyer said that the budget for next year included the loss of 172 certified staff, including teachers, guidance counselors and social workers. She said the district had to raise the average class size to 25 students this year and was planning to raise it again next year to about 30.

And while they have been assured of additional funds, not having the money or guidelines in hand has prevented the district from being able to tell any laid-off or eliminated staff that they could be rehired.

"We have to operate under the present budget,” said Donald Goncalves, the district’s communications director. "There is no way we can stop those levers, but our hopes and expectations that once we are advised by the state, we’d be able to bring many of them back to the classroom.”

Guidelines and Conditions

It’s been a month since the high court made the latest Abbott, saying that Gov. Chris Christie and the legislature must fully fund the 31 high-poverty districts under the current school-funding formula.

The state Department of Education (DOE) has yet to put a precise number on what that total will be for each district. It also has not said what conditions, if any, will be put on the money.

Under current statute and regulations, the state education commissioner, Chris Cerf, has broad powers to control Abbott funding and how it is spent. But he has so far been quiet about any potential guidelines, saying that he will allow the legislature to first act on appropriating the funds. There has been growing talk that the legislature would also provide funding for non-Abbott districts.

"All I can say is the budget is in the hands of the legislature and we should let it proceed," Cerf said last night.

Others wish the state would be more forthcoming.

"I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on," said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center (ELC), the Newark-based advocacy group that has led the Abbott case.

Sciarra has met with many of the Abbott districts to explain the process, he said, encouraging them to start thinking about where to put the money. He has told them to think about instructional programs, not administration or other non-classroom costs. And he has said they should put them to their greatest needs for their most at-risk kids.

"They need to be very careful about the decisions they make," he said.

But Sciarra said the state’s lack of guidance with just two months before the start of the next school year worries him, and he hopes it will step forward soon.

"This funding is coming, and the department needs to make sure districts have the ability to respond," Sciarra said.

Excellent Estimates

Even though the state department has yet to publish exact figures, the OLS last week posted the latest estimates of what each district would receive, running the numbers using the appropriate school-aid formula. The total is $446.9 million, which ranges from $734,000 to Keansburg, $834 million to Salem City and $81.8 million to Elizabeth by far the highest amount.

In between, Jersey City would receive $21.5 million, Newark $33.9 million, and Camden $11.9 million.

The amounts are determined not by the districts’ enrollments or budgets, but by how the districts have been funded under the School Reform Funding Act of 2008.

Thus, while Newark is the state’s largest district, its Abbott funds would only be about a 5 percent increase over the aid already proposed in the state budget, one of the smaller percentage increases among the Abbotts.

On the other hand, Perth Amboy would see a 32 percent state aid increase, which works out to an estimated $39.4 million in additional funds. Plainfield would see a 23 percent increase, or an additional $22 million, and Bridgeton a 25 percent bump, or another $15.5 million.

And then there’s Elizabeth, which is receiving both one of the largest additional sums and one of the largest increases at close to 30 percent.