What is in our local public schools budget? (a tool for advocates)

What’s included in our schools budget, and how is it structured (laid out)? I wanted to create a visualization for the 2021-22 budget; that is provided below. I’m interested in the details of the budget because we need to see, with greater clarity, how funding is being used to invest more in full-time teachers and other staff, mental health support, and wraparound services like before- and after-care.

So to peel back the layers of the budget paradigm, I took a look at the NJ Department of Education’s “user friendly budget.” I have visualized it below to invite more parents and caregivers, advocates, and taxpayers into understanding: what makes up our local public schools budget?

The School User Friendly Budget

Not to be confused with the municipal user friendly budget (which I also wrote a series about), the NJ Department of Education user friendly budgets is a standard budget template mandated for school districts throughout the Garden State. The NJ DOE has a landing page on the budget here. The data is warehoused on a NJ DOE website in “CSV” (spreadsheet-ready) format.

      The NJ DOE user friendly budget has some pros and cons…let’s start with the “cons” first. This budget does not:

      • provide sufficient insight into concrete questions around “does my school have sufficient teachers?”
      • offer clarity on adequacy targets by district, actual headcount of teachers and other staff, and key metrics like weighted enrollment.

      Those limitations notwithstanding, however, here are a few “pros“. This budget does:

      • help us see how and what the district is required to report up to the state — that in turn helps us narrow our focus into larger areas of funding, and for Jersey City, that includes the “School Based Budget”
      • helps lend insight into areas of the budget that do not have to do with instruction but are nonetheless significant expenses, including “Charter School” allocations and “Operation and Maintenance of Plant” (i.e. buildings).

      The insights below were gleaned from the “Appropriations” portion of the budget, which is viewable in the CSV files on the state website or on pages 4-6 of Jersey City’s 2021-22 UFB budget.

      Insights on Expense aka Investment

      Jersey City’s 2021-22 “User Friendly Budget” (available on the JCBOE Finance website)

      I have an interactive Tableau visual below but wanted to first show where this detail comes from, if you refer back to the PDF version of the report:

      We can take this detail from the report and arrange it from largest to smallest. We can also color-code it by fund (which you can read more about below if interested). Here’s what shakes out:

      Some initial observations include:

      1. The largest expense in Jersey CIty is “School Based Budgets” which are funds allocated directly to each of the 39 district schools. In Jersey City, the school-based budgets have seen a $60 million, or 22%, increase since 2019-20. You can read more about the “blended, school-based budget” view here but one main takeaway is: this is an aggregate, district-level view and does not provide much insight into each school’s budget. [Note: for school-level detail, we can refer to the district’s “Comprehensive Annual Financial Report” available on the NJ Department of Education website (Jersey City’s CAFR report is here). One drawback: CAFR reports are voluminous, “locked” in PDF, not available on the district website, and in general not an easy resource for parents and caregivers who want immediate insight into how funds are being invested within school buildings.]
      2. “Charter Schools” are the 2nd largest “expense” but they reflect public dollars passing through the JCPS budget to individual charter school budgets. These funds “follow the child” i.e. they follow Jersey City resident students who are opting out of the 39-school district and instead choosing to attend a charter school. In effect, the budget for Jersey City’s 39 public school system is net of (not including) the charter school pass-through expense.
      3. Employee benefits are the 3rd largest expense and they reflect insurance, pension contributions, and more for district employees. These benefits are tracked separately from salaries which live in other areas of the budget (e.g. “Instruction” or “School Based Budget”).
      4. “Operation and maintenance of Plant” is the 4th largest bucket of expense. This is interesting because the state is technically supposed to be managing and paying for major capital repairs. As a former Abbott district (and now an “SDA district), JCPS relies on the SDA for new buildings and major capital repairs. To see this amount in the budget invites the question: is the state doing what it should be doing, in terms of its obligations to SDA districts? The district could provide some clarity and context here.

        We can also filter the view down and see all expense between $1 million and $20 million.  These are not included in the “School Based Budget” line but they do include line items like “Child Study Team,” “Special Education Instruction,” “Administrative Information-IT”, and more.

        More info…

        For more information and some great visuals on NJ public schools, also check out the ELC’s NJ Data page.

        Postscript: a quick note on the “funds”

        If you look at the PDF version of the Jersey City Public Schools user friendly budget, you can see the data broken out by “fund,” a feature of government accounting that doesn’t translate easily into meaning for lay readers.

        The “funds” are a function of government accounting; they generally break out as:

        1. “General” fund activity includes a large list of items, from School-Based Budgets to pass-through funding to charter schools to expenses funding buildings and equipment.
        2. “State” fund activity is mostly PreK but it also has some “nonpublic” activity
        3. “Federal” fund activity is Title I through IV related, IDEA (Handicapped), and more recently federal COVID-19 funding like CARES Act and ESSER funding. A side note: in Jersey City we can glean further insight into federal-funded activity using the COVID-19 tracker.

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