After asking state for emergency aid, León says Newark does not face fiscal emergency

Roger León says he’s not worried about the Newark school district’s budget.

Just weeks after the district asked the state of New Jersey for nearly $37 million in emergency aid — and outlined a set of dire consequences if the money didn’t flow — Newark’s schools chief told the city school board that everything is under control.

“The request for emergency aid was never because we were in an emergency,” León said at Saturday’s board meeting retreat, where he and board members spoke widely about what is happening in the city’s schools.

Instead, he said, the district was just responding to the state’s invitation to apply for additional funding when it filed a formal request Aug. 9 — and guarding against possible bad press if Newark didn’t make an ask.

“The commissioner wrote a request saying if you are a school district in New Jersey and you believe you need more money … they said apply,” León said. “Let’s make believe that we decided because we’re Newark, we’re not going to write anything [to the state]. I bet the article would have said ‘Newark does not take advantage of emergency aid.’”

Listen to León’s comments here:

The state did invite districts to apply for additional aid, as it does every year. But districts are supposed to make a request only if the additional funds are essential to their operations. This year, nearly 200 New Jersey districts saw their state funding decline, but Newark did not.

Still, Newark does face very real budget pressures. León’s ambitious “Clarity 2020” plan to improve the district’s schools will be costly — and the district already says hundreds of millions of dollars of repairs are needed to its aging school buildings. The letter to the state said the district had to eliminate some teaching positions and put off repairs in order to balance the budget. It also said the district would not be able to make required payments to local charter schools without more state funding.

The state is likely to allocate emergency aid later this fall; last year, it parceled out funds to 13 of the more than 50 districts that applied.

Even if Newark does make the cut this year, it’s unlikely that the district will get most of the funding it applied for. The state has set aside $20 million for emergency aid this year — far more than last year’s $6.8 million, but well below the level requested not just by Newark, but by several other districts as well. Paterson, for example, requested nearly $25 million.

The board passed a resolution last week endorsing the district’s request for emergency aid.