Testimony to the NJ Senate Select Committee on School Funding February 2, 2017
Jorden Schiff, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools, Hillsborough Township, NJ 08844
I would like to begin by thanking the Chair and Members of the Committee for inviting our comments on school funding. My name is Jorden Schiff and I am the proud superintendent of the Hillsborough Township Public Schools. In addition to serving as the Hillsborough Superintendent, I am also the President of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.
The purpose of our testimony is to discuss how school funding decisions at the state and local levels affect the programs and services for NJ public school students. We would like to provide a historical perspective with specific data and evidence to support the fact that Direct Aid to Schools is not being funded at levels that will allow for the sustainability of educational programs for our students (see Charts 1-3). School funding issues are additionally complicated by our local school boards’ inability to manage expenses outside of the boards’ control that exceed the 2% property tax cap. As costs that are outside of the boards’ control increase beyond 2%, superintendents are faced with the difficult task of eliminating programs, deferring maintenance, and reducing teachers and staff.
During 2009, the height of the recession, state aid to school districts was reduced by five percent of the district’s entire operating budget. Let me reiterate, not five percent of state aid was reduced, but five percent of our operating budgets. Although superintendents were told to prepare for reductions in state aid of 5, 10, or 15%, the actual reductions in many districts were much higher leading to significant layoffs, furloughs, privatization, and salary freezes across the state. We sought and achieved greater efficiencies and reduced costs in many budgetary areas, even becoming entrepreneurial and creating revenue generating programs. Chapter 78 passed insurance costs from the taxpayers to public employees, increasing contributions for the past four years. The additional revenue from our employees’ healthcare contributions has now reached the last year of the four year phase-in period; as a result, no additional revenue will be realized to off-set the annual increases in healthcare costs in future years.
Special education costs are increasing throughout the state at a rate that exceeds 2% per year. As these costs continue to rise beyond the cap, resources will need to be reallocated from general education to special education. We have never been a state where we educate one child at the expense of another. We educate all children, regardless of ability or disability.
In sum, special education cost increases, flat state aid, and revenue caps have compromised our ability to sustain the quality of our educational programs for the long run. We are beginning to see a troubling trend in student achievement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) performance that may indicate that New Jersey is beginning to lose its standing as one of the top performing states in the nation (see Chart 4). The future will most likely find increases in property taxes and the reduction of programs for the children in our care unless we begin to consider alternatives to the current status quo.
As school district leaders, representing both school board members and superintendents, the Garden State Coalition of Schools appreciates the value of not only identifying a problem, but also providing possible solutions. We have five solutions that will provide a sustainable pathway to protect the quality of the educational experience that the citizens of New Jersey have come to expect from our public schools:
·Direct Aid to Schools Must be Increased at a Rate Identical to the Percentage Increase in the Overall State Budget (see Chart 1)
Budgets are the financial representation of an organization’s priorities. When the state has additional monies, it speaks volumes about the state’s priorities when one examines how those additional dollars are allocated. During FY16 the state budget increased by over $1 billion while Direct Aid to Schools remained flat. Most of the increase funded public employee pensions and retirees’ healthcare costs.
The state has spent the last seven years prioritizing the needs of adults over the needs of children. We must be able to do both.
·Use the Percentage Increase to Direct Aid to Schools to Begin the Process of Fully Funding SFRA, Maintain the Hold Harmless Provision, and Prioritize Districts That Have Been Significantly Underfunded
Fully funding the SFRA will take time, but it is very important that the state begin the process now and prioritize districts that have the following profile:
These districts are in crisis and must be addressed immediately. Other districts should receive additional monies proportional to their needs, until SFRA is fully funded. At that time, total state aid would increase by the percentage of the revenue increases in the state budget while SFRA is accurately allocated.
·Return Greater Control and Decision-Making to Local School Boards
Local school board members are publicly elected or appointed officials who represent and live in the communities they serve. They are the best people to determine taxation policy that balance the needs of the students with the community’s ability to pay. Each township, borough, village, and city is unique and has its own complexity and needs. Broad-brushing, one-size-fits-all policy from Trenton, fails to recognize and appreciate each community’s unique situation. Policy-makers in Trenton are not held accountable in the same way that a local school board is held to account by their community. Any costs outside of a board’s control that extends beyond the 2% property tax cap should be part of an automatic adjustment process as is done currently with the healthcare adjustment.
·Recognize Educational Services Commissions (ESC) as an Alternative to Expensive Out-of- District Placements for Special Needs Children (see Chart 5)
Part of the mission of all the Educational Services Commissions throughout the state is to provide special services that are not available in local districts. Similar services are provided by private schools at a greater cost. It is important that equivalent services are provided in an effective and efficient manner. The attached document illustrates potential cost savings while providing equivalent services for our out-of-district special needs students.
·Explore the Ability to Require Related Services Expenses for Special Needs Children to be Claimed Against the Parents’ Private Insurance Carrier and Have the School District Fund Any Out-of-Pocket Expenses
Currently, students who qualify for Medicaid and receive certain special education services qualify for a program (SEMI) that reimburses the local school district for specific special services. Similar to the SEMI program, parents of students with special needs could submit a claim to their private insurance carrier for services that are covered within their private plans. The school district would then cover any out-of-pocket expenses. Protections would need to be put in place to make certain that insurance carriers do not increase premiums for the parents of special needs children.
In closing, I would like to thank the committee members for listening and giving serious consideration to the testimony from the Garden State Coalition of Schools.