School officials fear impact of funding law

Administrators claim that staff may be cut, class size may increase


Staff Writer

Administrators from local school districts believe a new state law will force them to reduce the size of their teaching staffs and raise class sizes.

The representatives were speaking at an Oct. 12 conference organized by the Marlboro K-8 school district to discuss what are being described as the “unintended consequences” of the new law, known as S1701.

The law was enacted in July and limits the annual increase in a school district’s budget to 2.5 percent or the cost of living increase, whichever is higher. It also caps annual increases in school districts’ per pupil administrative spending at either the increase in the consumer price index (CPI), 2.5 percent, or average regional per pupil administrative spending, excluding adjustments for increased enrollment and several other adjustments; decreases state funding for busing of students who live within 2 miles of their schools; and reduces a district’s ability to independently save money and transfer funds, according to material provided by the New Jersey School Boards Association and an analysis of the law by the News Transcript .

A spokesman for the state Department of Education said the law will not affect the amount of money a district can expend this year, since the limit for spending increases before the law was enacted was 3.0 percent or inflation, whichever is higher. Since inflation for next year has been set at 3 percent, districts will still be able to increase their per pupil spending by at least 3 percent, the spokesman, Ron Rice, explained. In previous years, the CPI has been lower than 3 percent.

Districts will be able to increase their spending by more than 3 percent if the number of students in the district increases, Rice said. For each new child, some districts will be able to add to their budget caps the amount they spent last year, adjusted for inflation. Other districts will be able to increase their caps by the amount of new students multiplied by their per pupil costs for the previous year, the spokesman explained.

Previously, all the money the districts used to spend on courtesy (non-mandated) busing was not counted toward the district’s spending caps. Now, only the growth in courtesy busing spending will not count toward the cap, Rice said.

School officials said the new state law would force them to reduce the size of their teaching staffs and raise class sizes.

“The impact of this law is huge. We’ve been hiring 20 to 30 teachers [each year] for seven years now. Next year we’ll have to reduce staff by 20 teachers and class

sizes will be 25 to 30 students because of this bill,” Marlboro Superintendent of Schools David Abbott said at the conference.

Anthony Tonzini, the business administrator of Freehold Borough’s K-8 school district, painted a similar picture.

“Our enrollments are increasing steadily. They’ve gone up 25 percent over the last five years, but we probably won’t be able to afford the staff to support new classrooms and our class sizes will go up, just like everybody else’s in the room,” Tonzini said.

John Paredes, the business administrator of Colts Neck’s K-8 school district, said, “If this law is not repealed, technology in schools will not be updated and band-aids will be placed on all facilities with problems, which will cause a larger bill down the road as buildings begin to fall into disrepair.”

The school administrators cited the rapidly rising costs of the following items as factors that will not enable them to meet the spending constraints mandated in S1701: health care premiums for employees, out-of-district placements of special education students, gasoline, and utilities. They said the state is not providing adequate funding to meet the cost of mandated special education programs.

The continuing 4 to 5 percent annual increases in teachers salaries was also mentioned as a reason why school districts will not be able to cope with the new law. However, the school officials indicated that they would not consider trying to significantly reduce the size of teachers’ salary increases in order to comply with the law.

“We have two options. One is to cut staff in order to afford raises to the teaching staff we have, or offer [teachers] a 1 percent settlement, but we know that [a 1 percent settlement] is not going to fly. That’s not even an option,” Tonzini said.

The Freehold Borough Board of Education’s present contract with its teachers union will expire in June 2005. District administrators will begin negotiating a new contract with representatives of the union in the near future.

Howell K-8 Board of Education member Robert Antonaccio suggested that his school district would not consider offering teachers and other staff members an annual raise of 2.5 percent or less. The collective bargaining process will make it impossible for Howell to adhere to the 2.5 percent spending cap, Antonaccio said.

“If you have a 4 percent teachers [salary] increase, how can you cap at 2.5 percent?” he asked.

Asked whether administrators have the option to offer teachers annual raises of 2 to 2.5 percent, Cindy Barr-Rague, the business administrator of the Marlboro school district, said, “It’s an option, but it’s not going to settle a contract. The teachers will go on strike because the average [annual] pay raise for teachers in the county is 4.75 percent.”

When a reporter asked what would happen if there was a short teachers strike in Marlboro, Barr-Rague said, “You don’t know what a strike does. It devastates a district. I live in Middletown. That district had a [teachers] strike for a week and it has never recovered and it never will. It’s devastating. [A 2 to 2.5 percent settlement] won’t happen when the county average [annual raise] for teachers is 4.75 percent.”

Marlboro administrators are currently negotiating with the teachers union on the terms of a new contract. The previous contract expired in June. Teachers are presently working under the conditions of the expired contract.

Barr-Rague said she is estimating that the district’s teachers will receive annual pay hikes of 4 percent in the next contract.

After Abbott explained that Barr-Rague had developed a projection of the 2005-06 school year budget, Barr-Rague said, “If I take a 10 percent increase in medical insurance costs, a 20 percent increase in prescription drug premiums, a 5 percent increase in dental premiums, and because I’m in negotiations, I figured a 4 percent increase for teachers, [the district] is in the hole $400,000.”

Paredes pointed out that school districts cannot alter teachers pay while previous contracts are still in effect.

State Assemblyman Robert Morgan (D-Monmouth and Mercer) voted for the new law, but acknowledged that the state’s budget process which produced S1701 is flawed. He agreed with the school administrators’ position that the law has created unintended consequences and said parts of it must be amended. However, he added that reforms must be enacted to curtail wasteful spending by some school districts.

“Your districts are doing a good job in administering your school systems. Other districts are not good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Morgan told those in attendance.

The assemblyman said he is working to lower school districts’ health care costs by trying to find a way for insurance companies to pool their risk so that they each shoulder the costs of “high-risk” people equally.

Morgan said public institutions should be created to educate children who have special needs. Currently, local school districts (taxpayers) pay private institutions large amounts of money to educate children who cannot remain in public school, he explained.

“A number of districts should come together to create in-house programs for difficult children,” Morgan said.

A special board of experts should be created to decide whether students need to be placed in out-of-district facilities, the assemblyman said.

Under the current system, courts ultimately decide whether a student should be placed in an out-of-district school if parents and local school administrators have a disagreement on the issue. Morgan said courts almost never rule in favor of school district administrators who challenge a parent’s request for his child to be placed in an out-of-district school, the assemblyman said.

Everyone will have to make sacrifices in order to allow the state to emerge from what Morgan characterized as a financial crisis, the assemblyman said.

“There are a number of serious issues that have to be dealt with. Doing nothing is not an option,” Morgan told the school officials present at the Marlboro conference. “We have to find solutions and they will not be palatable to everyone.”

The assemblyman said he has met many people who are losing their homes because they cannot afford to pay their large property tax bills.

A bill that would repeal S1701 has been introduced in the Legislature and is awaiting action.