First, the good news: Gov. Phil Murphy will be sending Verona’s schools 12% more in state aid this year than last year, and the aid plans have been revealed before Verona finished its 2019-2020 budget, so we can factor it into our plans. Now the bad: We’re not getting anything more in municipal aid, and the school increase doesn’t make up for a decade of being shortchanged by Trenton on our school and municipal aid.
According to the governor’s state school aid proposal, Verona will get $1,442,837 for the next school year, up from $1,287,737 for the 2018-2019 school year. The fiscal 2020 state budget earmarks $206 million in state aid overall to public schools, with 370 New Jersey districts getting some increase in aid. Last year, the governor’s office and state legislature agreed to redistribute aid from overfunded districts to those that have not been. Most Essex County school districts will be getting an increase for 2019-2020, with the largest percentage increases going to Essex Fells (14.24%) and West Orange (13.06%). Newark still gets the bulk of the state aid awarded to the county: $812,391,624 for 2019-2020, up $24,767,712 (3.15%) from the previous year.
“The increase in state aid from our governor is a step in the right direction,” says Dr. Rui Dionisio, superintendent of Verona Public Schools. “But make no mistake about it, the draconian cuts over the past seven years, combined with a 2% cap, have had a significant impact on our ability to support the staffing and services that we believe to be integral in supporting our commitment to educating the whole child and that which our community has come to expect.”
“The Verona Public Schools was deprived of over $6 million in cumulative loss in state aid since 2011,” Dionisio adds. “This reality has had an impact on programs, staffing, facilities, etc. in our district which has made supporting all of our programs extremely challenging. We are fortunate to have a strong staff, community, and Board dedicated to serving the best interests of children. With lofty goals and high expectations, we have much work ahead of us under challenging fiscal constraints but I’m confident that achieving our ambitions is possible as long as we remain focused and exercise sound decision making under even the most arduous circumstances.”
The increase in state aid follows an exceptionally bad budget for Verona schools. Last May, we had to rip $160,000 out of an already tight budget, forcing cuts to both teaching and administrative positions, as well as non-discretionary and discretionary budgets. When the state finally revealed its revised school aid funding for fiscal 2019 (the 2018-2019 school year) in July, Verona was awarded $284,000 in additional aid, but most of the gains were only on paper. As MyVeronaNJ.com reported last year, $110,000 of what was presented as new additional aid was aid that had actually been given to us in fiscal 2018 by the Christie administration. The Murphy administration had based its increase calculations on where Verona’s aid stood when we approved our 2017-2018 budget in April 2017, not what it was after the Christie administration made its awards. This year’s award also comes before the Verona Board of Education finalizes its budget for 2019-2020, which should help with planning. That budget will be released at the end of April.
“The state aid is going in the right direction, but lots of ground was lost over the last several years,” says Lisa Freschi, president of the Verona Board of Education. “It is my hope that the state aid will continue to grow. We are fortunate to have strong leadership, a dedicated staff, and a supportive community which allows us to keep moving forward.”
School aid is not the only place where Trenton has been stingy. According to figures presented by Verona’s chief financial officer during the municipal budget workshops last week (below), municipal aid has fallen short of the state’s own aid formula in every year since 2002, and the shortfall has been growing. In fiscal 2002, Verona got $1,455,148 in state municipal aid, but it should have received $36,379 more than that. For fiscal 2018, Trenton only sent $1,159,622 back to Verona, a whopping $1,069,773 less than we should have gotten. Cumulatively, Verona’s municipal budget has gotten $10,064,565 less than it should have from Trenton since 2002.
Unlike the schools, the town budget can’t expect anything more this year: State aid to municipalities will be flat under Murphy’s new budget proposal. Town officials are expected to propose a municipal budget for 2019 that will be slightly smaller than that for 2018, but carry a small increase in the municipal tax levy. More about that soon.