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7-21-13 Education and Related Issues in the News
Star Ledger - N.J. sees hiring rise in local government, schools

Star Ledger - The real scandal in school lunch: Editorial

Star Ledger Opinion - For Christie, former ally becomes a roadblock: Moran

Star Ledger - N.J. sees hiring rise in local government, schools

By Jarrett Renshaw on July 21, 2013 at 12:05 AM, updated July 21, 2013 at 12:07 AM

All across New Jersey, local governments are doing something almost unheard of just a few years ago.

They’re hiring.

After losing workers to layoffs and a record number of retirements during a poor economy, local governments have added 12,100 jobs in the past 12 months — inching closer to pre-recession employment levels, state Labor Department records show.

The preliminary numbers for June show 436,400 people working in municipalities, counties and school districts, from teachers and cops to county social workers and tax collectors. That’s just shy of the decade-high of 440,900 local government employees in August 2009, or 99 percent of the employment levels in the months before Gov. Chris Christie was elected. During his 2009 campaign, Christie vowed to shrink state government and get tough with all public employee unions.

"There has been some modest gains at the local level," said Charles Steindel, the chief economist for the governor. "But whether it’s a good or a bad thing is a different question."

Steindel said "for people with the jobs, they are certainly happy" but noted that taxpayers who mostly work in the private sector pick up the tab for public workers’ salaries and benefits.

For months, the loss of public sector jobs was a drag on the state’s overall job picture. While the private sector began its recovery in early 2010, it wasn’t until a year later that the public sector bottomed out, Steindel said. Of last month’s 4,600 gain in jobs, 3,300 came from the public sector, which also includes federal workers.

"It’s not surprising to see an increase in hiring after we saw the layoffs under Governor Christie a few years ago," said Steve Baker, a spokesman for New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. "Those layoffs had consequences, and districts saw the harm to students, and they are hiring."

Facing a tanking economy and plummeting state revenues after taking office in 2010, Christie slashed aid to towns, school districts and taxpayers — drawing criticism from public employee unions and local leaders who said he was balancing the state budget on the backs of the middle class. The state economy has since shown signs of life and Christie has restored most of the cuts.

Following state aid cuts a few years ago, the Perth Amboy School district handed out pink slips to about 20 workers, mostly support staff such as nurses and security guards. This fall, those positions will be filled.

"This means kids will have more access to technology, they’ll get more attention from teachers and our security force will be more effective," Perth Amboy superintendent Janine Walker Caffrey said. "We are really pleased about the hires."

Clifton Mayor James Anzaldi said Christie’s moves to cap arbitration awards and shift health and pension costs onto public employees is bringing greater financial stability.

Frank Cecala/The Star-Ledger 

He said the city’s financial position has improved after what he described as "the worst times since the Great Depression." It was just several years ago when his administration closed a fire station and required worker furloughs.

The city recently swore in a group of new officers, some poached from the unemployment line. Anzaldi said it’s easier to hire someone who was laid off in another town because less training is required.

"Those changes really helped, specifically they kept us from having to lay people off," he said. "Things are not perfect right now, but they’re certainly better."

Despite the upswing in hiring, some cities are still struggling to restore staffing levels in hard-hit police departments.

The city of Newark laid off 167 officers in 2010 and saw dozens of others retire without their positions being filled. Today, there are about 1,000 police officers in the city, down from highs of 1,700, said Lt. Alex Martinez, a vice president with the Newark Superior Officers Association.

"We are at levels not seen since the 1980s," Martinez said. "We have less police officers to respond to calls for service, and everybody is in reactive mode because we don’t have the bodies."

Newark Mayor Cory Booker has put money for 50 new officers in his budget.

As local governments have boosted hiring, the historic surge in retirements — which came as the state dramatically scaled back public employee health and pension benefits — has ebbed.

From 2010 to 2012, public employees retired at a clip of 18,192 per year, the highest three-year average in at least a decade, according to Treasury department figures. This year, public employees are on pace for 14,183 retirements, the fewest since 2005.

In 2010, Christie’s first year in office, teacher retirements soared to 7,104 following a decade-long clip where about 4,300 a year called it a career. This year, 4,170 teachers are expected to retire.

The trend in hiring on the local level has not spread to state government, where the number of workers remain at historic lows.

Last month, there were 144,600 state workers in state government, authorities and colleges — down from the 152,400 employed (or 5.1 percent) when Christie took office. Part of the reduction has come through attrition and outsourcing, from the state-owned television network to the lottery.

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said the continued loss of state worker jobs "has always been the plan. The level of service within state governments is the same, if not better, with a smaller, less-costly government."

Hetty Rosenstein, the state director of the Communications Workers of America, the largest state employee union, said the losses have affected consumers, from longer waits at Motor Vehicle Services to delays in processing tax returns.

"It’s amazing to me that he would celebrate poor service," she said.


Star Ledger -The real scandal in school lunch: Editorial

on July 21, 2013 at 5:59 AM, updated July 21, 2013 at 6:02 AM   

For those who think it’s outrageous that scores of public employees lied about their income to get their kids free lunch: Forget the freeloaders for a second.

This is just the tip of a much bigger scandal, fraud on a massive scale.

Cheating the school lunch program costs taxpayers far more than a subsidized sloppy Joe. To understand why, consider its impact on school funding.

School districts get additional state dollars based on the number of children enrolled in this federal free and reduced-price lunch program, which, sadly, acts as an incentive to sign up as many students as possible.

New Jersey is among the best states in the country in spending for low-income students. The state’s 31 poorest districts, formerly called Abbotts, on average spend about $3,000 more per pupil than the rest of the state.

To estimate how many needy students there are in a district, the state uses lunch data: It provides an extra $4,700 to $5,700 for each child enrolled in the program, which works out to hundreds of millions in state aid.

So there’s a big incentive for districts to lie, or to look the other way at fraud. The vast majority of free lunch applications are never reviewed for accuracy.

Some experts argue the real problem is underreporting — families that qualify for free lunch but don’t take advantage of it. But even they agree that while this program is vital for feeding the poorest children, it’s an unreliable measurement for state school funding.

According to the state comptroller, Matthew Boxer, as many as 37 percent of participants are fraudulently enrolled. When he released his latest report last week documenting widespread abuse in the program, Gov. Chris Christie acted stunned — as if a burglar had been caught breaking into his house.

But this has long gone on under his watch. Last year, after The Star-Ledger’s Ted Sherman first reported lunch program abuses in Elizabeth, Christie formed a task force to look at whether we should tie lunch data to school aid. It has yet to offer any recommendations. Why the delay?

We still have no perfect method of calculating poverty. Using townwide numbers can be just as problematic, because students often don’t go to school in their hometowns. The same goes for food stamp rolls. If we collect this data through schools, we again run into problems with district finagling.

It’s not an easy question, but it’s the job of this task force to grapple with it. In the meantime, the state should ensure that verifying these numbers isn’t left to the districts. Run public employee salaries through the system, as the comptroller suggests, to verify the applications. And find a way to audit regularly.

Knowingly relying on fraud for school funding is not an option.

Star Ledger Opinion - For Christie, former ally becomes a roadblock: Moran

By Tom Moran The Staon July 21, 2013 at 6:30 AM, updated July 21, 2013 at 6:31 AM

Christie needs to move right to run for president, and Sweeney needs to move left to run for governor in 2017, his most likely next move

Christie and Sweeney collaborated on the Rutgers University merger. CHRIS PEDOTA / THE RECORD 

Most people wouldn’t know Senate President Steve Sweeney if they bumped into him at the corner store.

So by way of introduction, he is the Democrat who made the Chris Christie phenomenon possible. He is the one who reached his hand across the partisan divide, made the big deals and pulled along enough Democrats to get it done.

He is also the one who could single-handedly derail Christie’s dream of using a second term to prepare the ground for a presidential run with a lot of conservative fireworks, assuming he wins re-election first.

“His second-term agenda is one he’ll have to work with me and the speaker,” Sweeney says. “It’s an agenda we’ll agree to, or an agenda that won’t happen.”

We are witnessing the end of the golden era of bipartisan politics in New Jersey. It has been on life support since the agreement on tenure reform more than a year ago, and now it is barely breathing.

One reason is that the low-hanging fruit has been picked clean. It was easy to agree on cutbacks when the economy was crashing.

But a second is that Sweeney and Christie are being pulled apart now by opposing political forces. Christie needs to move right to run for president, and Sweeney needs to move left to run for governor in 2017, his most likely next move.

So brace yourself. Because as far as temperament goes, these guys are more similar than either of them would like to admit.

We all know about Christie’s personality. If he were in kindergarten, he’d spend half his days in timeout.

Sweeney is an ironworker who is built like a linebacker, and speaks fondly of the days when he amused himself as a young man by picking fights at bars. So when the governor threatens to bang heads, Sweeney is usually game, if only for the sport of it.

Look at their standoff over the Supreme Court. With two vacancies, Christie can’t get a hearing on either of his nominees because of a dispute with Sweeney over the court’s partisan balance. The governor calls this “reprehensible” and said Sweeney was showing “cowardice.”

Sweeney takes those fighting words about as seriously as a horse swishing his tail at a fly. He’s more moved by Christie’s habit of personally attacking judges, along with his stated intention to find justices who will vote his way on school funding and affordable housing.

“As long as I’m Senate president, I’m not going to allow the court to be re-created in a way that it’s going to have guaranteed outcomes,” Sweeney says. “The court has to be independent. Period.”

For Republicans, the solution to the Sweeney problem is to win control of the Senate in November. Sen. Tom Kean (R-Union), the minority leader, sent a four-page memo to Republicans last week explaining his grand plan to win the five seats needed to take control. The memo is full of wishful thinking that many Republicans dismiss privately as unrealistic pep talk. Even Sweeney’s seat is targeted for a Republican takeover.

“I told Tom, ‘Spend all your money in my district,’” Sweeney says. “I’m urging him to do that, and I’m serious.”

Christie has managed to lure handfuls of Democrats to his side. He has reliable support from Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Atlantic) and Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson). And if he can find issues with bipartisan appeal, he has shown that he can win many more.

But that won’t give him the fireworks he needs. It won’t allow him to cut income taxes, for example, or build the Supreme Court of his dreams. And he can’t end-run Sweeney because a senate president has the power to single-handedly block any bill from reaching the floor for a vote.

So is Christie boxed in? Not entirely. He has an outside chance at winning the Senate if his gubernatorial opponent, Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), can’t close the enormous gap she faces today. If that happens, he is off to the races on taxes, abortion and anything else that appeals to Iowa Republicans.

More likely, he will put public pressure on Sweeney to embrace smaller measures, such as sick-pay reform and ethics reform. And even if he loses those fights, he will win the public argument and grow in popularity.

But don’t look for his second term to be anything like his first. The stars were aligned then to achieve big things. Those days are over.

Tom Moran may be reached at tmoran@starledger.com or (973) 392-5728.


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608