After Budget Vote, NJ School Districts Face a Painful Process

Feeling the crunch of tough economic times, New Jersey voters last month went to the polls and turned down a record 58 percent of their school budgets. Now, school representatives are meeting with local officials and trying to balance their budget needs with the will of the voters. Reporter Scott Gurian went to one of the districts where the budget failed –- the Bergen County suburb of Teaneck -— to see what's on the minds on local residents and what happens now.

Like many parts of New Jersey, Teaneck is an expensive place to live. The average household pays over $10,000 a year in property taxes, and the proposed school budget would have raised them an additional 8 to 10 percent, or about $475 dollars, according to some estimates. Standing outside an ice cream shop in Teaneck’s downtown shopping district, resident Norma Goetz said she felt she had no choice but to vote no.

"You want public education to thrive. You want the teachers to do well. You want the students to do very well," she says. "But you don’t want to push people out of town that can no longer afford to live here."

Now she's pointing the finger at Trenton for forcing her to make what she says was an extremely difficult decision.

"The blame goes to Governor Christie for putting us all in this situation," Goetz says.

Under Christie's belt-tightening measures, Teaneck schools will see a 59 percent drop in state aid. The governor’s view -– echoed by some local residents -– is that schools across the state need to do their part to slim down during the recession, trimming fat from their budgets and enacting teacher salary freezes and cuts to pension benefits.

But school board member Dr. Henry Pruitt says the district is currently locked in a contract with teachers that guarantees them a 4.5 percent raise, so it's powerless to negotiate unless the teachers' union steps forward and volunteers to make concessions. As for any charges of wasteful spending...

"The budget we proposed was the budget we need. I mean, there’s no padding, there’s no fluff, there’s no extra in that budget. We cut 21 positions to get to where we are. And then we got a $4.4 million additional cut from the governor. Beyond this point, we’re just gonna have to find some other areas, and it’s gonna probably be more staff."

Last week, the district notified 52 teachers that given the budgetary uncertainty, some of them might be out of a job come the fall. Meanwhile, an auditor hired by the town was putting the final touches on a report recommending a series of spending reductions. Thursday night, he presented his recommendations to town council members at a public meeting at Teaneck High School. The event was heated at times, with some town residents criticizing the report for its lack of clarity.

Students also pleaded with council members not to cut funding for advanced courses or extracurricular activities. Alyson Levin, 18, was last year’s valedictorian at Teaneck High and is now attending Columbia University. "Budget cuts need to happen, and I fully advocate for budget cuts," she says. "What I don’t advocate for are cuts that aren’t wise. If you cut the wrong way, you’re just gonna have a worse education, you’re gonna have teachers who are here who are unhappy and not willing to teach well. You’re gonna have students who are here who are unhappy. And nothing’s ever gonna get better."

The council members seemed sympathetic, and they agreed not to cut funding for clubs, transportation, or sports. That left the focus on staffing and coming up with creative ways to trim little bits here and there, like sharing some services with neighboring school districts and holding off on purchasing new textbooks.

Right now, difficult conversations like this are taking place all across New Jersey. Teaneck and other towns will need to resolve their budgetary differences by Wednesday, the state-mandated deadline for determining next year’s property tax rates. Ultimately, if school boards and councils are unable to reach agreements, the local school boards can appeal to the state commissioner of education.