Public Schools — More Than Ever the Heart and Soul of the Community
In times of crisis such as storms and floods, public schools serve as safe havens creating a sense of security and stability for the community.
In every town and city throughout New Jersey, superintendents are collaborating with their staff members, student families, and community leaders to address the monumental challenges generated by the Coronavirus pandemic. We are all working to create a new educational system that is shifting from the traditional brick and mortar classrooms to the virtual online world of teaching. Administrators, teachers, and support staff are showing incredible resilience and ingenuity in delivering lessons and updated communication to their students, their families and community residents. In addition to nourishing a student’s intellect they are now faced with nurturing their emotional and physical well-being. School personnel labor to deliver food to the needy and are challenged with boosting morale and establishing meaningful connections while working from a distance. This mission is made more difficult in communities where the ‘digital divide’ is so great. Educators and families wrestle to overcome the paucity of technology resources and lack of connectivity. Schools lacking these resources are grappling with the challenge of teaching online and engaging with their students.
Governor Murphy has ordered schools to remain closed through May 15. However, most school leaders doubt the reopening of school this year and don’t believe face-to-face summer programs can be conducted. In fact, many leaders question whether opening doors to students in September will even be possible.
As we work through this current norm and improve the effectiveness in our new educational methods we are faced with a new conundrum: How do we transition from our current quarantined situation to a ‘new norm’ as social distancing requirements lessen, and school buildings come alive once again?
As chief education officers and school district superintendents, we will adhere to the guidance of our health officials and direction of the Governor and integrate the new requirements as New Jersey normalizes. Recent federal administration guidelines suggest schools will not be at the forefront of any return to normalcy. This is a logical conclusion as schools aggregate so many people and the risk of spreading infection would remain high without adequate Covid-19 testing and screening.
Obviously, operating budgets will be re-allocated to satisfy school resources for the remaining school year and possible future fiscal year. Budgets now approved with February state aid figures seem unrealistic given the predicted shortfall in state revenues that has resulted in the state fiscal year being extended through September. Predicting state funding to schools becomes more problematic as workers remain confined, state income tax payments are delayed, unemployment grows at a dizzying rate, and tax and other revenue streams (income, property, sales, tolls, use fees) are less certain as a result.
Despite these obstacles, district leaders must move a plan forward. School leaders must be practical and responsible in speaking with their boards, staff, and communities. “Expect the worst and hope for the best” might be the appropriate adage for these times. Addressing the unappealing premise that state funding may be reduced, that municipal property tax collections may be significantly curtailed, and that legislation might force districts to use other dedicated funds to support operations is a necessary start. The state’s fiscal status for the coming year remains convoluted. As my father often told me, “money doesn’t grow on trees.” State governments can’t ‘print’ money as the federal government can. Indeed, the federal CARES Act support to districts might not fill the gap in lost district revenues due to the failing state and national economy.
This is not an easy scenario to accept, but one that requires all district leaders to consider how the school system will operate on reduced resources. The time to do that is now, despite the volatility of future circumstances. Conversations at the county and state level with colleagues can foster creative thinking and common solutions that might benefit all. NJASA will lead that conversation at the state level as well and advocate for the best possible course of action for the state’s public schools. We have joined the other major education organizations in opposing legislation detrimental to district fiscal operation and will continue to do so. Many have said that “we will get through this time.” And we shall, but clearly not without enduring diminished outcomes for our students and communities if basic resources are unavailable.
Richard G. Bozza, Ed.D.
NJASA Executive Director