I recently met with high school student leaders in Jersey City Public Schools who are sharing stories of the conditions inside their schools. They go by the name “Revolutionizers of Jersey City High Schools” (r.o.j.c.h.s.) and have an Instagram channel here. Their pictures and videos give a glimpse of what they are experiencing on a daily basis, which includes a bathroom sink sitting on the floor (detached from the wall), crumbling ceilings, ceilings with exposed ducts and wiring, classrooms disrupted by mice and roaches, and more.
They had been interested in learning about the budget so I was happy to meet with them and support them, sharing some of what I’ve learned over the years by paying close attention to, and writing about, the school budgets. One question they asked was: what is in the $1 billion budget? It’s such a big number, and such a round number, that it grabs attention and is often used in the newspaper headlines.
I committed to them that I would detail an answer to their question and also share this information at the October 19th board of education meeting, where they will also be attending and sharing their perspectives. Their question, particularly about the size of the budget, was rooted in a disconnect they are experiencing between between (a) a seemingly huge budget and (b) their own experiences. The students are not alone in this disconnect; I hear it from taxpayers, too, who ask “how can the schools be so troubled despite such a big budget? And there are two things I want to highlight in response to this:
- Our schools’ capital (i.e. building related) repairs have long been ignored by the state of New Jersey, and the “SDA” (School Development Authority) specifically
- Our schools have only recently been pulled out of a systemic, chronic funding ditch that they were sitting in for most of the last decade that resulted in cut staff, including teachers.
We can see both of these issues in the budget.
JCPS $1 Billion Budget, in brief
Here’s the breakdown….and I’ve color coded revenue and expense to help show some of the matching of who is helping fund what. This data comes from the 2022-23 “User Friendly Budget” file which is located on the JCPS Funding and District Budget page. I’ve summarized the major subtotals below with color coding to help illustrate key points.
1–Of the $1 billion, $168 million (17% of the budget) immediately “passes through” the JCPS budget and is allocated to charter schools. This is because, in New Jersey, local school funding “follows the child” … and there are many students who live in Jersey City but attend public charter schools.
2–Of the $835 million remaining after the charters get their allocation, $85 million then gets allocated directly to PreK3 and PreK4 students. This is all state-funded and part of a much broader system of PreK education that you can learn more about here. I’ve color coded that yellow in the chart above.
3–Of the $750 million remaining, about $66 million is allocated towards various projects funded with one-time federal COVID-19 aid. That is also color-coded, in yellow. There is important context here. New Jersey – the state – is supposed to manage major capital (i.e. building) repairs on JCPS’ behalf through a state agency called the “School Development Authority.”
However, the SDA is not doing its job; this has been widely reported in the press:
“Under the district’s 10-year Long Range Facility Plan, the long-troubled School Development Authority (SDA) was to provide it with $1.4 billion in funding to build additional schools and to maintain the existing schools. Of this amount, however, the SDA — which has said it is completely out of new funding — only provided $361 million, leading to a shortfall of over $1 billion for the district’s capital expenditures.” (NJ Spotlight, 2019)
The SDA was “…restructured or moved under state control after a political patronage scandal led to mass firings and internal reforms as well as costly lawsuits in the fallout”. The restructuring itself was described by “current and former employees” as “a front for patronage and fear that what they call the relative inexperience of many new hires could put the authority on a path leading to familiar troubles.” (North Jersey.com, 2021)
So the district is using its one-time federal education aid – meant for COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts – in part to address major building repairs that the SDA had been long-ignoring. The students of r.o.j.c.h.s. are pointing to some of this building decay in their videos. They are showing the neglect caused by the state.
So when we account for charter schools, PreK programming, and expense related to COVID-19 projects (some of which are major capital repairs), we see the real recurring cost of recurring operations for Kindergarten through Grade 12 is about $667 million. This is all shown below in the table that I created to summarize the budget. And we can see this number (approximately) through another lens: the Education Law Center’s “District Funding Page” for Jersey City’s 2022-23 budget:
And here is why this chart is important:
- On the left (the bar chart) we can see that the district was “fully funded” meaning the yellow exceeded (slightly) the blue. This is part of the “one billion dollar budget.”
- But…the right (the line chart) we see how systemically underfunded the public schools have been prior to 2022-23. Most of the yellow line is for staffing – teachers, principals, paras, etc. (you can read more about how the JCPS budget is mostly staff-related here).
This is all complicated but the budget documents do help tell *part of the story, which is that (a) some of the schools are in terrible shape in part because of the SDA not keeping up with major repairs and (b) the district has been underfunded for many years and is now trying to get out of a proverbial fiscal ditch.
A final note. I say these budgets tell a “part” of the story. There is a lot more nuance and context to all of this, and so my take here is limited in scope. But this part of the story is important, and they should be part of the context whenever the “1 billion dollars” number is used.
I encourage students to keep asking questions and adults should endeavor to help you understand. I applaud students who are trying to better understand their own schools.
In addition the Education Law Center Funding Page, I am sharing two reports, both published by the state, that can give a detailed, comprehensive look at any school in the district. These reports are compiled by local districts and then reported up to the state which then publishes them. The links are below.
The annual “Annual Comprehensive Financial Report” is a detailed report that contains data about every school in the district. Here is Jersey City’s ACFR from 2022 and you can do a quick word search using Control-F (Windows) or Command-F (Mac) on the PDF. As an example, I opened up the file and did a word search on “Infinity” and the second hit took me to page 240 of the PDF which shows an itemized list of expenditures from Infinity High School for the 2021-22 school year (there is more in this document, but here is a screen shot):
There are many more metrics and lots of rich context to explore. What can be interesting is to use the Control-F word search and let your curiosity guide you. Find your school, search around, and then ask questions. The questions are like doors to learning; keep asking questions and if you can, ask people within the schools who may understand how things work, like a principal or a teacher. You can even attend a board of education meeting and ask the Superintendent or the Board of Education; in fact, public meetings have “public comment” for just this purpose — to allow the public to ask questions, share concerns, etc.
2. New Jersey School Performance Reports
Another interesting report is the “New Jersey School Performance Report” available online here. This is a detail-rich, school-by-school report. Drill down into your district and then your school and you can see many reports, including:
- Your school’s demographics, by race, income and more
- Academic achievement and college and career readiness
- Graduation rates
- Details about staffing ratios
- I will note: this report’s “per pupil spending” report is flawed because it does not look at “weighted enrollment,” which I explain in more detail here
There is even a “school narrative” that gives an overview of the school on areas like sports, curriculum, clubs, and more. As an example, here is a snapshot of Ferris High School’s Narrative Report from Oct 16, 2023:
Questions = Learning
Starting out with key word searches can help you drill right to schools (e.g. Infinity or Ferris), topics (e.g. sports or food), and spending areas (e.g. staff or transportation) that you may be interested in learning about.
And, in the spirit of asking questions, I’ll share that what I’m curious about from students, like…Do you recognize your school from these reports? If not, why not? What, if anything, rings true or reflective of your school? What, if anything, surprises you? What would you like these reports to capture that maybe they don’t already capture? Your perspectives matter greatly to many adults in this community, including me.