Every school district in New Jersey will see cuts in state aid - some far deeper than local education officials said they were led to expect - according to figures the Christie administration released yesterday.
"We've never seen cuts like this before," said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
In most districts, "formula aid" will be cut an amount equal to roughly 5 percent of their total operating budgets.
In three-quarters of South Jersey districts, that means they would take a double-digit cut. Some wealthy districts would lose all their formula aid.
Officials of suburban and urban districts said yesterday that their schools would feel pain, and many said they felt blindsided by the severity of the cuts.
Many districts already were impacted by $475 million in state aid withheld in this fiscal year. Last month, Gov. Christie put them on notice that they would instead be required to spend their surpluses and any reserves they set aside in anticipation of flat or reduced aid in 2010-11.
Acting on advice from the Corzine administration and reiterated by Christie education officials, districts said, they put together budgets anticipating up to 15 percent less aid than they were to have received this year.
That all changed Tuesday, when Christie said in his budget address that cuts in state aid would be up to 5 percent of districts' entire operating budgets, which include money from local property taxes.
"We want to understand the conditions, the environment in which 15 percent becomes 67 percent," Moorestown Superintendent John Bach said, referring to his district's projected loss. "It's frankly quite disturbing."
Haddonfield, where formula aid is a small portion of the overall budget, is among 59 New Jersey districts slated to lose all of that aid.
According to state education data, formula aid to Haddonfield in the current year was to have been $1.5 million, or 6 percent of the district's total operating budget. Until yesterday, the district thought it would receive $1.2 million in the new budget, according to Superintendent Alan Fegley.
"Many decisions will need to be made over the next few days," Fegley wrote yesterday in an e-mail to district residents. "None of them will be pleasant."
Now that they have received their aid information, districts have an extremely tight timeline in which to adjust their spending plans. They have until Monday to deliver budgets to their county executive superintendents and until April 3 to make final revisions.
"From our point of view, the news couldn't be worse," Cherry Hill Superintendent David Campbell said.
Cherry Hill is looking at an $8.6 million drop in formula aid, down 52 percent from what had been budgeted in the current school year. In addition, it is spending millions from its surplus, which it had planned to use to augment the next budget.
Officials in many local districts said the cuts proposed yesterday would have serious implications.
Even before the figures were announced, Collingswood Superintendent Scott Oswald warned parents that "the Collingswood School District will look very different" in September.
"We will not be able to provide the resources and support to which they have become accustomed," he said.
Oswald said he planned to turn to the district's unionized staff members for help in seeking ways to save jobs and "get through this crisis."
Even lower-income districts - where state aid is a larger portion of the operating budget, and where the cuts will be a smaller percentage - said they would be hurt.
In Paulsboro, Superintendent Frank Scambia said the district's 7.9 percent cut in aid could result in higher property taxes, layoffs of up to 10 staff members, and reducing preschool classes to half-days.
For years, "we have been skimming away and skimming away, and getting close to the bone," Scambia said. Paulsboro, a lower-income community, gets about 59 percent of its education budget from state aid.
The city of Camden - where 88 percent of the school budget comes from the state - will have its aid cut by 5 percent, the smallest in the region. Even so, that amounts to $15.2 million, on top of the $8 million in surplus the district is required to deplete this year, school board member Jose Delgado said.
"We are looking at closing and merging schools," he said.
To close a projected $11 billion gap, Christie presented a $29.3 billion budget plan Tuesday that would sharply reduce spending and hold down taxes.
At a news conference yesterday, state Education Commission Bret Schundler said that even districts losing all their formula aid stood to get substantial other assistance from the state, including funding for pension and other labor-related costs. He noted that the state had managed to increase funding in some categories, including certain special-education aid.
In his budget address, Christie criticized former Gov. Jon S. Corzine for spending $1 billion in federal stimulus money for education in one shot, rather than spreading it across a number of years.
He also slammed the New Jersey Education Association, which represents most of the state's teachers. Christie urged legislative passage of measures that would cut labor costs, as well as of a state constitutional amendment that would lower the cap on property-tax increases from 4 percent to 2.5 percent.
Yesterday, Schundler picked up that call, urging legislators to act quickly - possibly in the next few weeks - to pass those changes, which he called "crucial" and which he said could reduce or rescind layoffs in districts.
Union officials have accused the governor of bullying and attacking teachers while sparing wealthy taxpayers.
Schundler also noted that under current law, districts have the right to seek a tax levy above the 4 percent cap if they have a reduction in state aid. He said he planned to discourage them from doing so, however, noting that state officials have the power to veto parts of districts' budgets.
No one disputes that districts will struggle to quickly craft budgets for voters to consider on April 20.
The impact of the cuts will be felt community-wide, predicted Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.
"All that angst is going to be in the air, and it may pit parents [of school-age children] against some older folks," she said. "I think it's going to be divisive."
To view the changes in funding to your school district, go to http://go.philly.com/stateaidEndText