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1-8-13 Education Issues in the News
The Record - State monitor is installed to supervise spending in Elmwood Park school district … “education experts said Monday that small districts such as Elmwood Park, operating under state-imposed budget caps, are vulnerable when special needs children enroll in their schools, sometimes requiring districts to spend as much as $100,000 per pupil.…Special state aid kicks in after $40,000 per student but the costs are greater than average enrollments and the districts have to front the entire cost for students moving in since they don’t receive the state reimbursement until the following year, said Lynne Strickland of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.She said a district in Middlesex County was forced to lay off staff a number of years ago because of problems budgeting for special education enrollment.“It’s a worry for districts,” said Strickland…”

NJ Spotlight - NJ Touts Educational Reforms But Earns ‘D’ in One Nationwide Report Card…StudentsFirst rankings raise eyebrows for judgment of Christie’s record -- and who's doing judging

The Record - State monitor is installed to supervise spending in Elmwood Park school district   … “education experts said Monday that small districts such as Elmwood Park, operating under state-imposed budget caps, are vulnerable when special needs children enroll in their schools, sometimes requiring districts to spend as much as $100,000 per pupil.Special state aid kicks in after $40,000 per student but the costs are greater than average enrollments and the districts have to front the entire cost for students moving in since they don’t receive the state reimbursement until the following year, said Lynne Strickland of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.She said a district in Middlesex County was forced to lay off staff a number of years ago because of problems budgeting for special education enrollment.“It’s a worry for districts,” said Strickland…”

 Monday January 7, 2013, 10:12 PM  BY NICK CLUNN

A funding crisis in Elmwood Park public schools that the superintendent mostly attributes to the rampant growth of special education costs will now become a challenge for a newly appointed state monitor who can veto the school board.

The gravity of the state’s decision to appoint a full-time agent in the district, prompted by two consecutive yearly budget deficits, was underscored Monday night when Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf appeared at a special board meeting to personally introduce the monitor and detail the extent to which he can control the purse strings.

Elmwood Park is only the seventh school district in New Jersey to have this level of intervention, Cerf said. But he did not mention the district’s special needs population, citing deficits as the main reason for the state’s action.

But education experts said Monday that small districts such as Elmwood Park, operating under state-imposed budget caps, are vulnerable when special needs children enroll in their schools, sometimes requiring districts to spend as much as $100,000 per pupil.

Richard Tomko, the Elmwood Park superintendent, said before the meeting that he welcomed the intervention, but was also uncertain what steps the monitor could pursue following years of deep spending cuts imposed by the school board and a stream of special needs students moving into the borough and enrolling in borough schools.

“There is really nothing else left to cut,” he said.

The district is struggling financially despite making $1.2 million in staff reductions in 2011 and eliminating most bus routes last year, he said.

Balanced budgets are required of public school districts in New Jersey, but the Elmwood Park school system overspent by $684,000 in 2010-11 and an unknown amount in 2011-12, state officials said. That amount will become clear following the completion of an annual audit. The state also found “material weaknesses” in financial controls and will immediately focus the monitor on improving the maintenance of general ledgers and practices related to purchasing and payroll, Cerf said.

The commissioner acknowledged after the meeting that the Elmwood Park schools were on the “high end” when it came to the percentage of special needs students.

Cerf appointed Thomas Egan, a former business administrator in Bergenfield, as his watchdog and financial repairman in Elmwood Park. Although Egan will answer to Cerf, the district is required to pay his $93 per hour wage and cover business-related expenses. The appointment is for two years.

Egan will have final say in all purchasing decisions, can overrule the school board and is allowed to attend executive session meetings when financial matters are on the agenda.

Tomko on Monday afternoon said increased enrollment, but particularly among special needs students, is a leading cause of the district’s financial instability. The same factor is once again coming into play this school year, he said.

Since school began in September, the district has enrolled eight students whose needs demand unique care in facilities outside the district, Tomko said.

Anticipated costs associated with educating these additional special needs students, among others the district by law cannot turn away, will likely exceed by $200,000 the $6 million set aside for special education in 2012-13, Tomko estimated. The total budget for this year is $36 million.

A fluctuation in special education enrollment can put a particular strain on smaller districts since surpluses are limited by law to 2 percent of annual budgets, said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Special education placements can cost districts more than $100,000 per pupil in some cases. The impact can be difficult to plan for and absorb, particularly if the enrollment comes mid-school year, said Belluscio.

“There’s not much of a cushion so it can be a problem,” he said.

Special state aid kicks in after $40,000 per student but the costs are greater than average enrollments and the districts have to front the entire cost for students moving in since they don’t receive the state reimbursement until the following year, said Lynne Strickland of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.

She said a district in Middlesex County was forced to lay off staff a number of years ago because of problems budgeting for special education enrollment.

“It’s a worry for districts,” said Strickland.

The state has also assigned monitors to Asbury Park, Garfield, Trenton, Camden, Pleasantville and Elmer borough in Salem County.

Staff writer Pat Alex contributed to this article.

NJ Spotlight - NJ Touts Educational Reforms But Earns ‘D’ in One Nationwide Report Card…StudentsFirst rankings raise eyebrows for judgment of Christie’s record -- and who's doing judging

By John Mooney, January 8, 2013 in Education|2 Comments

Two years ago, school-reform crusader Michelle Rhee was sitting in the first row during Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address, in which he laid out much of his education agenda.

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As Christie prepares to make his State of the State for 2013 today, education is expected to figure less prominently, but his administration still got a reminder yesterday that the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor-turned-national education advocate isn’t letting up.

In the first state-by-state report card issued by Rhee’s new organization, StudentsFirst, New Jersey earned a D for its progress – or lack of progress– in meeting Rhee’s core reform principles, which center on teacher quality, school choice and what she deems to be effective spending and oversight.

"Parents and teachers are working hard every day to make sure every child in New Jersey gets a great education, and while recent tenure reform represents meaningful progress, more reforms are necessary for our students to achieve the results we want for them," said Craig Wallace, StudentsFirst's state director for New Jersey.

How much all this matters beyond hardcore school-reform circles is arguable, and some said the report speaks more to Rhee’s own Draconian standards than the political realities in most states, including New Jersey.

For instance, no states won grades of A in the report card, and eight states received failing grades. Only eight states earned passing grades, with Florida and Louisiana tops with a B-minus each.

But Rhee is probably the highest-profile member of the reform circles of which Christie likes to think himself a member, and his invitation for Rhee to attend his State of the State address in 2011 – and even to sit with his family – was a notable nod to her influence at the time.

He followed up with what his supporters would say has been a successful record of accomplishments on the education front, including last year’s passage of a tenure- reform law that for the first time directly tied teachers’ tenure to their annual evaluations.

Still, he has fallen short on other measures that might have given the state better grades by Rhee’s standards, including his stalled proposal for a school-voucher program and his failed bid to end teacher seniority rights under the new tenure law.

Yesterday, the governor’s office did not comment on the StudentsFirst report, and the state Department of Education was diplomatic, choosing instead to highlight Christie’s accomplishments.

"While we certainly respect the viewpoint of StudentsFirst, we believe this report fails to recognize the great work happening in so many of our districts across the state and only scratches the surface of the work we have undertaken over the past three years,” said Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

“That includes the expansion of our Inter-District School Choice program, the passage of the Urban Hope Act, the agreement on a groundbreaking contract in Newark, and the regulations on teacher and principal evaluations we will be introducing in the coming months,” she said in an email.

The state’s dominant teachers union, hardly a big ally of this governor, scoffed at the report.

“Where do I begin?” said Steve Wollmer, communications director of the New Jersey Education Association. “First of all, when Louisiana and Florida are the two top ranking states in this, its remarkable that New Jersey didn’t fall lower.

“It’s clearly an ideological report and not about student achievement,” he continued. “If it was, we’d rank at the top. All it does is measure the Legislature’s willingness to follow Michelle Rhee’s agenda, and obviously that's not selling very well."

 


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