Budget Guide

What will Gov. Murphy’s budget mean for Newark schools? Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Phil Murphy for Governor
Gov. Phil Murphy, shown here in a photo from 2014, will release his first-ever budget plan on Tuesday.

Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned on a pledge to ramp up education spending, and Newark school leaders are watching closely to see if he’ll keep that promise – or if they might have to slash their budgets.

Murphy is set to unveil his first-ever budget plan Tuesday. While districts will not get detailed aid figures for a few more days, Murphy’s budget proposal should give them a sense of how much of a boost — if any — to expect.

Expectations are high in Newark, where flat state funding and rapid charter school growth has left district officials scrambling to plug gaping budget holes. They’re hoping Murphy will give them some portion of the $140 million in additional aid that the city is owed under state law.

“This budget season is very, very important for us,” Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

To help you understand what’s at stake for the city’s schools, Chalkbeat Newark created a state budget guide. It explains how school funding is set and what that means for Newark’s district and charter schools, whose financial fate is controlled by politicians in Trenton.

How are New Jersey schools funded?

New Jersey schools are funded according to a formula that was adopted in 2008 and has been touted as a national model for distributing school aid according to need.

The formula calculates two things: How much money each district needs to adequately educate its students (its “adequacy budget”), and what portion of the budget should be paid by the district (its “fair share”). The budget amount is determined by how many students a district enrolls, with extra money allocated for each student who is poor, still learning English, or has a disability. The share each district must chip in is based on its wealth and taxing capacity.

That’s how things are supposed to work, anyway.

Due to budget cuts that followed the Great Recession, the formula has not been properly enacted since 2009. Today, about 31 percent of the state’s nearly 600 school districts receive less school aid than the formula says they’re owed, according to the Education Law Center. To fully fund the formula, the state would need to boost its school spending by nearly $1 billion.

What might change this year?

If the governor keeps his promise, schools will get a lot more money.

On the campaign trail, Murphy, a Democrat, vowed to fully fund the school-aid formula “immediately.” However, he recently appeared to waver on that timeline — and few observers consider it realistic.

Still, any serious funding boost will be costly. To raise the additional revenue, Murphy has proposed hiking income taxes on households making more than $1 million, among other measures.

But Murphy’s “millionaire’s tax” has become a harder sell following the Republican federal tax overhaul, which capped the amount people can deduct on their taxes. Last week, the state’s top Democratic lawmaker, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, unveiled an alternative proposal: a tax on corporations earning more than $1 million in net annual income. Either plan would generate more than $600 million in new revenue for the state — though it remains to be seen how much of that would go toward education.

While Murphy and lawmakers have until June 30 to hash out the state budget, districts are on the hook to set their own preliminary budgets by the end of March. That means they must rely on Murphy’s spending plan for now, then make adjustments once a final compromise is reached.

“It’s totally crazy,” said Danielle Farrie, the Education Law Center’s research director.

What will the budget mean for Newark Public Schools?

Newark’s limited tax base leaves it at the mercy of the state, which provides about 80 percent of its school funding.

This school year, the state sent Newark about $750 million — about $140 million less than what it’s entitled to under the school-funding formula. Gregory told Chalkbeat in January that if the district gets even a fraction of what it’s owed, “we’ll be in a better place.”

The Newark school system has faced whopping budget gaps in recent years. Two factors have driven the deficits: the rapid growth of charter schools and flat state funding.

Because charter school funding comes out of district budgets, Newark spending on charters has soared as those schools enroll ever more students. This school year, the district will transfer about $237 million — or a quarter of its budget — to charter schools, up from $60 million in the 2008-09 school year.

Meanwhile, state aid to Newark has not kept up with its rising expenses. The result is that the district’s per-pupil spending shrank by nearly $2,000 from 2008-09 to 2016-17, according to an Education Law Center analysis that adjusted for inflation. (The state boosted Newark’s budget each of the past two years.)

To balance the budget, Newark officials have had to sell off school buildings, switch employee insurance providers, and raise local taxes, among other measures. The district has mostly avoided cutting school budgets — though it did recently shift some funds from high schools to elementary schools. But if state funding is flat this year, officials worry they will be left with few other options.

“The last place to go is in school buildings,” Gregory said. However, “if we face flat funding again, that could lead to an immediate impact on students.”

What about Newark’s charter schools?

Today, about one third of Newark’s public-school students — or roughly 16,000 children — attend charter schools.

About 90 percent of the district’s local and state funding for each of those students follows them to their charter schools — though charters are excluded from certain funding streams. Murphy has been more skeptical of charters than his predecessor. But advocates hope that his budget will, at the very least, not leave them with less money.

“We’re just generally looking for charters to be unharmed — for us not to go backwards,” said Nicole Cole, president and CEO of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “The families that we serve can’t afford for us to take a step backwards.”

Election Guide

Meet the Newark power players looking to steer this year’s school-board election

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Mayor Ras Baraka is one of three powerful forces backing a slate of candidates considered the leading contenders in this year's school-board race.

One evening last week, excitement surged through the Willing Heart Community Care Center, a charity housed inside a Baptist church near downtown Newark.

Dozens of residents had crowded into the pews for a chance to listen to some of the 13 candidates vying for three open seats on the city’s school board. They understood the high stakes of next month’s election: Newly empowered after two decades under state control, the nine-member board will be responsible for managing the district’s nearly $1 billion budget and choosing a new superintendent.

This group of board members “will be the first set under the newly constituted Board of Education,” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of Newark’s NAACP, which hosted the event, as the crowd rumbled with applause. A few moments later, she underscored her point: “This becomes a very, very important election.”

But for all of the election’s significance, it’s hardly expected to be a model of democracy.

Held in April apart from other elections, voter turnout — like school board races across the country — has historically been low. Last year, about 7,500 people cast ballots, or just over 5 percent of registered voters.

And three of the candidates are running on a slate backed by a powerful alliance of Mayor Ras Baraka, North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr., and the city’s growing charter-school sector. Candidates on that slate — previously dubbed “Newark Unity,” and now called “Moving Newark Schools Forward”  have dominated each election since the alliance formed in 2016.

Charles Love, a former parent organizer who ran in the previous two board elections, said the 10 candidates not on that slate face an uphill climb. Last year, Love had committed volunteers and the backing of a city councilwoman. But he said it was not enough to compete with the political machine behind the Unity slate, which helps its candidates fundraise, knock on doors, produce campaign materials, and prep for debates.

“In a sense, the Unity slate negates the independent candidate — it creates almost zero possibility of you winning,” Love said. “If you try to throw arrows at a tank, you’re going to lose.”

Below is a guide to the power centers behind the slate whose candidates are considered the leading contenders in this year’s election, which takes place April 17. (The deadline to register to vote is March 27.)

A muscular charter sector seeking to mobilize parents

As Newark’s charter-school sector has rapidly expanded to serve about a third of city students, its political ambitions have grown with it. That was made clear by its recent search for the ideal school-board candidate.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Asia Norton (left) is a kindergarten teacher chosen to represent the charter-school sector in the race.

A coalition of charter-school advocates convened by the Newark Charter School Fund first identified nearly 20 potential candidates last summer. The contenders then participated in individual and group interviews, met current board members, and underwent trainings on how to run for public office. One session was conducted by Democrats for Education Reform, a national pro-charter advocacy group led by Shavar Jeffries, a former Newark school-board member and mayoral candidate.

Finally, the coalition settled on Asia Norton, a Newark parent and kindergarten teacher at KIPP Life Academy charter school.

“We think she is smart, talented, and has the right experience, temperament, and leadership to represent all of the 55,000 kids in Newark,” said Michele Mason, the Newark Charter School Fund’s executive director.

The charter sector began to ramp up its political involvement after Baraka’s election in 2014. During the campaign, he had crusaded against former Superintendent Cami Anderson — whose policies included opening more charter schools — and attacked Jeffries, who enjoyed strong backing by pro-charter forces.

The following year, supporters of the city’s largest charter-school operators, KIPP and North Star Academy, funded a new advocacy group called the Parent Coalition for Excellent Education, or PC2E. The idea was to organize the thousands of Newark parents with children in charters into a potent voting bloc that could push back against critics who wanted to halt the sector’s expansion.

In 2016, PC2E joined the “Newark Unity” slate with Ramos and Baraka – a surprise given that Baraka had sharply criticized Newark’s charters for sapping resources from the district’s traditional public schools. PC2E’s political arm spent heavily on the board races — nearly $208,000 in 2016 and over $174,000 in 2017, according to campaign filings — and its candidates easily won each year. (PC2E has been less active since its executive director resigned in November.)

Now, charter advocates are focused on getting Norton elected. For her part, Norton is emphasizing her local roots — she grew up in the South Ward, and her mother is a Newark public-school teacher — over her charter credentials. At Thursday’s candidate forum, she touted her experience teaching for six years in Newark schools but did not mention that they were charters.

“I don’t view myself as a charter teacher,” Norton told Chalkbeat in an interview before the forum. “I’m a Newark teacher.” She said parents should be able to choose the best schools for their children – whether public, private, or charter.

“That’s what I think makes Newark so rich,” she said, “all the different educational programs that are provided for our children.”

A ‘pragmatic’ mayor running for re-election

Baraka has long been a force in the city’s school-board elections.

The “Children First” slate that he backed as a city councilman and then as mayor won seats in five consecutive elections, according to the election-tracking site Ballotpedia. In many of those races, his candidates battled those on the “For Our Kids” slate, aligned with the powerful North Ward.

So when he joined the Unity slate in 2016, many saw it as a shrewd political move. The alliance allowed him to choose a candidate who stood a strong chance of winning without having to take on the North Ward machine or the well-financed charter sector, whose schools serve a growing number of city residents.

“Mayor Baraka is very astute, he’s very pragmatic,” said Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, the mayor’s chief education officer. When it came to the board elections, she explained, his options were to “be inclusive or wage a war of finances, organizing, and mobilization.”

This year, his chosen candidate is Dawn Hayes, a City Hall staffer and public-school parent.

According to her campaign biography, she is a former member of the U.S. Air Force and “the first Muslim woman working as a technician for Direct TV.” She is also a member of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition and president of the Harriet Tubman school’s parent-teacher organization.

Even as Baraka pushes for his slate to win in April, he is looking ahead to May 8, when he is up for reelection. While he is heavily favored in that race, a school-board victory ahead of time would help lend an air of inevitability to the outcome.

“Is it a barometer for the mayoral election?” said Baskerville-Richardson. “I guess so.”

A ward known for its political prowess

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Yambeli Gomez is a city councilman’s aide and former labor organizer chosen for the slate by the North Ward.

When it comes to racking up votes, the North Ward is a well-oiled machine.

It was long under the sway of Steve Adubato Sr., a political powerbroker who founded the North Ward Center in 1970 and one of New Jersey’s first charter schools, Robert Treat Academy, in 1997. Now Councilman Ramos, who ran for mayor in 2014 before dropping out and endorsing Jeffries, is one of the main forces behind the ward’s political operation.

In last year’s school-board election, slate candidates received far more votes in the North Ward than they did anywhere else — including Baraka’s base in the South Ward.

This year, Ramos’ chief of staff, Samuel Gonzalez, is chairing the Moving Newark Schools Forward slate. Ramos himself is bringing its members along as he canvases at churches and community events ahead of his own re-election bid in May.

“We really take the election seriously,” Ramos said about the board race. “We take it as an informal test of our operation.”

The ward’s candidate is Yambeli Gomez, an aide to Councilman At-Large Eddie Osborne.

The daughter of immigrants, Gomez previously was an organizer for campaigns to raise the wages of fast-food workers and expand pre-kindergarten in New York City. Her mother is an organizer for the powerful 32BJ SEIU union.

Introducing herself at last week’s forum, Gomez switched between English and Spanish — a nod to the city’s growing Hispanic population. Consistent with her slate, she sounded a theme of unity.

“I’m running for school board because I was one of those kids who didn’t feel included,” she said. “I want to be able to help and be inclusive.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 50 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 56 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.