On Thursday, Sept. 10, Interim Education Commissioner Kevin Dehmer went before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee to discuss the education portion of the fiscal year 2021 budget. The governor has proposed a $32.4 billion budget to cover October 2020 through June 2021. Education makes up the largest portion of state spending at about one-third of the state budget, not including teacher’s pension and benefits contributions by the state.
During the question and answer period, Sen. Teresa Ruiz expressed frustration at the department’s inability to identify the exact number of students still without a computer, Chromebook or other device needed for remote learning. When asked about the issue, the commissioner said that about 193,000 students needed a device. Federal funds, Dehmer said, will be provided to reimburse districts for the purchase of those devices.
However, Ruiz, who also chairs the Senate Education Committee, called it a “huge red flag” that NJDOE did not make sure that every student had a device before schools reopened. Ruiz also voiced concerns over the lack of diagnostic tools to measure academic improvements during remote and hybrid learning; the flat funding of district aid in light of extraordinary unforeseen COVID-related expenses; and the general lack of assistance for school districts to meet the COVID challenges.
In particular, she referred to the $100 million allocated by the governor for school opening assistance as “shameful” and expressed frustration that, according to the state auditor, only $25 million of $310 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) has been spent. In response, Dehmer noted the ESSER funds are paid through a reimbursement program and NJDOE anticipates districts will soon be requesting reimbursements as schools are now beginning to open.
Other issues raised by committee members included:
- Although actually a program within the Department of Children and Families, committee members expressed concerns over proposed cuts to the School- Based Youth Services program. (See a separate story, and a sample board resolution in support of the program, here.)
- A lack of guidance and support on proper cleaning of schools to meet COVID necessary standards;
- The need to address internet access in more remote areas of the state; and
- Objections to how “at-risk” is defined in the school funding formula.
As previously reported, in order to give the administration more time to evaluate the impact of the COVID health and economic crisis, the fiscal year 2020 budget was extended three months while the fiscal year budget has now been set to run nine months beginning Oct. 1. The interim commissioner’s full testimony can be viewed here.