NJ Schools Prepare to Slash Jobs

Layoffs expected in almost every school district

By GEOFF MULVIHILL
|  Monday, Mar 22, 2010  |  Updated 8:30 PM EDT
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NJ Schools Prepare to Slash Jobs

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School boards across New Jersey are preparing to slash their staffs in reaction to the state's plans to cut aid to schools.

In the Philadelphia suburb of Cherry Hill, the district has a preliminary budget that would reduce its 1,700-employee work force by about 100, including around 60 teachers. In Lawrence Township, near Trenton, 50 of the district's 600 jobs could be eliminated.

Some layoffs are expected in nearly all of the state's 590 operating school districts — though some schools are looking at alternatives, from imposing hefty property tax increases to trying to persuade unions to renegotiate their contracts.

The job reductions, which would be effective July 1, come after Gov. Chris Christie announced last week in his budget address that combined federal and state aid to the public schools for the 2010-11 school year would be about $8 billion — down about $1 billion from the current year.

Most districts learned last week that their contribution from the state would be smaller than they expected. That set off a flurry of emergency school board meetings during the past five days as districts rushed to meet Monday's deadline to send the state preliminary budgets.

Christie and his education commissioner, Bret Schundler, said other proposed state policy changes could help school boards keep costs down in the future. Among them: requiring school employees to contribute to their health insurance costs, capping increases in local school taxes at 2.5 percent per year and changing bargaining rules to help districts in their negotiations with employee unions.

Even if those measures are approved quickly by lawmakers, none came before Monday's deadline.

Once approved by the state, the property tax levies for most districts' budgets would go to public votes on April 20.

Christie and key legislators rejected the New Jersey School Boards Association's suggestion that the votes be skipped this year so schools could have more time to work out their budgets.

Further confining the districts, Schundler has told schools that they shouldn't raise property taxes by more than 4 percent this year — even though most could propose bigger tax hikes than that under state law.

Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, said she expects the state to give greater scrutiny to any budget with a proposed tax hike over 4 percent.

And even if those larger increases are approved by the state, school boards know they're more likely to be rejected by voters.

"They're all vulnerable to defeat," she said.

Some schools are undaunted.

In the School District of the Chathams, for instance, Superintendent Jim O'Neill said he's proposing a property tax increase of close to 7 percent — and he believes voters will support it.

He said he's refusing to have deep layoffs this year after going through them last year. "I cannot do that again without decimating what I believe is one of the finest school districts in the state," he said.

New Jersey Education Association spokeswoman Christie Kanaby said a handful of local school unions have agreed to renegotiate their contracts — and far more have been approached about doing so as a way to reduce the number of job cuts. She said opening settled contracts could be a danger because there's no guarantee that school boards would use any savings to keep jobs.

Dennis Murray, president of the Montclair Education Association, said his union struck a deal last week with the school board that will save enough money to keep some of the more than 100 jobs that could have been eliminate otherwise.

"It's not that you're giving in. I like to look at it as giving to the community," Murray said. "We're helping these people keep their schools open."

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