The Clifton Public Schools Budget Demystified
The Clifton Board of Education is in the process of finalizing the school budget for the 2023/2024 school year. The next Board of Education meeting to discuss finalization will be held on May 4, 2023. The Clifton Times encourages parents and others to come to the meeting to voice their thoughts on the new budget.
The Clifton Times covered the meeting to pass the preliminary budget on March 23, 2023 HERE. At that meeting, Commissioner Judy Bassford encouraged all parents to tell the Board what they want to see in the schools - for example, if your child’s classroom is in disrepair, there are maintenance funds available that can be used to repair them. In addition, she asked Mr. Shehata, the Assistant Business Administrator/Assistant Board Secretary, to provide information on what each incremental increase of the budget would mean. Shehata stated that a 2% increase would mean 18 new positions plus 9 paraprofessionals being made full-time with benefits. A 3% increase would mean 21 new staff members and 15 paraprofessionals being made full-time with benefits, and 4% would mean 29 new staff members with 18 paraprofessionals being made full time. The Board passed that preliminary budget, which includes a 3% increase, and will be considering suggestions at the May 4th Board of Education Meeting in preparation for filing the finalized budget with the State of New Jersey.
The Budget In A Nutshell: The Clifton Board of Education estimates that there will be 10,970 students enrolled in Clifton Schools (9,136 Regular Full-Time and 1,834 Special Ed Full-Time) in October 2023, for whom they will have to provide educational services and support. The preliminary budget shows that all revenues for the budget are estimated to be $293,217,517, which is an increase of over $21 million dollars over the 2022/2023 budget. This amount matches the predicted appropriations. The total comparative per pupil budget cost is $19,294, of which approximately $10,490 per student goes towards classroom teacher salaries and benefits. The remainder is made up of support services, administration costs and salaries, and operations. This is an increase over last year, where $16,767 was spent per student. The revenues come from local sources (primarily property taxes - $141,942,778), state sources, as well as federal ones.
This year Clifton is receiving $90,456,020 from the New Jersey State Department of Education, which is an increase of $22,744,347 (33.59%) from last year. Clifton is one of the top ten districts in terms of dollar increase for the 2023-24 budget, thanks to lawmakers’ efforts to correct previous years of underfunding. Clifton, which has seen a rise in students who need additional services, like refugee children with limited English language skills, will be better able to address those needs with the increased funding. The district is additionally responsible for funding any Clifton student who attends Passaic County Technical-Vocational Schools or one of the public charter schools, and also pays Out-of-District tuitions for 126 students with severe disabilities who cannot be appropriately educated here in Clifton.
State of New Jersey Funding for Schools: The NJ budget for the fiscal year 2024 provides an increase of $832 million in direct K-12 aid for public schools, for a total of almost $11 billion. With this latest proposal, the State will have increased overall K-12 support to New Jersey’s public schools by more than $2.6 billion over six years, a more than 30 percent increase, all of which helps offset local property taxes.
In addition, $109 million for pre-school education aid is being proposed, in the hopes of making universal pre-K a reality for families struggling with child care expenses. The Governor is also working to shore up the ranks of teachers, budgeting millions for stipends, training, loan forgiveness, and other programs.
To understand more on how the State calculates its contribution to local schools, the NJBSA provides this School Finance 101 guidance.
Interview with Dr. Robertozzi: Some Clifton citizens have voiced concerns that the property taxes have been increased over the last years in order to deal with understaffing and infrastructure upgrades and repairs, yet they still hear complaints about classrooms being overcrowded. We reached out to Dr. Robertozzi for his comments.
What We Need. Dr. Robertozzi told us that class size is generally an average number which can be misleading. The reality is most of our elementary classes are between 21-24 students per class and middle to high school classes have around 25 students per class. However, a physical education class in the middle and high schools might have 50 students and when that high number gets averaged in, the class size average goes up. He said that Clifton Public Schools are not completely overcrowded, but that the way to reduce class size would be to hire more teachers. A comprehensive needs assessment done by the district indicates the need to hire 93 staff members in 23-24 to meet district priorities. This includes adding more ESL/Bilingual Teachers as Clifton’s need for English language learner instruction has doubled, adding more special education classroom teachers and support professionals, and increasing instructional spaces for ESL, special education, and pre-K across all buildings. The proposed budget, which raises Clifton’s property tax contribution by 3% would allow for the hiring of 21 more teachers and would allow the district to make 15 paraprofessionals who are currently part-time, into full-time employees with benefits.
State and Local Funding Obligations Explained. Robertozzi explained the need for the tax increase by explaining that the district was dramatically underfunded for so many years as a result of two things. First, Clifton has been underfunded by about $500 million since 2013, when the previous Governor refused to apply the funding formula set out in the School Funding Reform Act of 2008. Under the SFRA, the State calculates each district’s “adequacy budget,” which is the cost of providing a child an “adequate” education. The State says $11,009 for an elementary student is the baseline, but this increases based on weighted student enrollment, thereby ensuring that funding is available for programs to address the needs of at-risk (low-income) students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. Then the state determines the capacity of a municipality to fund that “adequacy budget,” based on property wealth and average income, to calculate the local revenue obligation, called the “local fair share.” The difference between the “local fair share” and the “adequacy budget” is the amount of state aid a district receives. Now, under Governor Murphy, we are finally getting the state aid we deserve.
Second, Clifton has not collected enough property taxes to meet its “local fair share” as we have had multiple Board of Education budgets with no increase or an increase under 1%. The State of New Jersey suggests that schools increase their budgets by 2% a year and that was not done. Robertozzi said that had we had just gone with the recommended annual 2% increase in the past, we wouldn’t need to raise the budget more than 1% now. So in summary, there were years the Clifton School District was underfunded by the state, and then Clifton School District was underfunded by the Board of Education not raising the school budget, even as inflation and other costs kept rising.
Finally, Robertozzi explained that Clifton uses a smaller portion of the property taxes than other districts for the school district. When homeowners pay taxes, roughly 29% goes to the municipality, roughly 23.6% goes to the county and then 47.4% (the largest portion) will then go to the Board of Education to administer as part of the source of funding for the school budget. In Passaic County, the average municipality contributes 51.2% of the property taxes to their school boards. The statewide average is 52.7%. So Clifton is contributing approximately 5% less to the Board of Education than other towns in New Jersey.
As the State of New Jersey has now provided us with the full amount of funding, any increases will need to come from the tax base.
Lunch Reimbursements. At the last Board meeting, Superintendent Robertozzi mentioned that while Clifton usually has made a profit under the Food Service Shared Agreement with NJEDDA, this year there was an end of the free/reduced lunch for everyone that was in place as part of the COVID response. Many parents have not filled out the needed forms that would allow the district to be reimbursed for lunch fees and as a result, our district currently has a shortfall of approximately $300K for school lunches. In 2022, food services generated a surplus of $1.1 million, and in the past, that surplus was used to pay down outstanding lunch debts. However, this will no longer be allowed. Instead, the 2022 surplus cafeteria money from the lunch fund will be used to renovate the kitchens at the middle schools and 3 elementary schools (13, 5, and 1). It’s very important that all parents fill out these forms, even if you aren’t sure that you qualify for free or reduced lunch. Please submit the forms through the Parent Portal if you have not already done so.
Deadline to Run for Board of Education. If you are interested in being a commissioner on the Board of Education, the deadline to submit petitions is July 31, 2023, and the election will be on November 7, 2023. Click HERE for the candidates’ kit; all you need is to be a US citizen and a Clifton resident and to gather ten signatures from registered Clifton voters.
The Clifton Times will continue to cover the Clifton Public School budget hearings by the Board of Education and encourages parents, teachers, learners, and others to please attend the Board meeting on May 4th, 2023 at 7 pm at the Board of Education building at 745 Clifton Avenue Clifton, NJ 07013.