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District Projects Largest Budget Cuts in 116-Year History

Superintendent Fishbein weighs in on state aid cuts.

Update: 5 p.m.

A day following news of massive state aid cuts to education, Ridgewood schools prepare to close a $6.33 million budget gap.

"In the face of this heavy blow, the district's administrators will now finalize the educational plan that they believe will best serve our students and community in the coming school year," Superintendent Dr. Daniel Fishbein said.

"Every attempt will be made to find cost savings in a manner that will result in the least harm to our core programs. However, there is no doubt that the plan will include painful budget reductions, and even more painful staff layoffs."

Under the governor's proposed budget, the state will cut 100 percent of Ridgewood schools' formula aid allocation, exceeding projected worst-case scenarios.

The district will lose $2,985,477 in funding from the previous year, the state announced March 17. Ridgewood was one of 59 districts statewide to have all formula funding cut. The upcoming cuts will be the largest in the district's 116-year history.

In its preliminary budget proposal, the district accounted for a $3.35 million budget gap ($2.14 million made up of staff cuts) with a flat state aid allotment. Given the state's actual allotment—or lack thereof—a $6.33 million gap exists.

"We have been dealt a very hard blow... It is a very unsteady time in our district's history. But one thing is certain: Our strength has always come from Ridgewood, not Trenton," Fishbein said.

Ridgewood plans to work with local state representatives to reduce "onerous and costly state mandates," he said.

The district will host a special public meeting tomorrow at the Education Center at 4 p.m.

The state's rationale

Education Commissioner Brett Schundler explained the cuts in a conference call with reporters yesterday.

"If the choice is to increase taxes... or get control of spending... you have to take the latter course," he said. "If we don't like where we are, prudence dictates we change direction."

After learning of the cuts yesterday, Ridgewood Board of Education member Sheila Brogan said she was shaken.

"We'll have to look at athletics, extra curriculars, the high school... Everything has to get on the table," she said. "We'll definitely have more conversations with our unions on how we're moving forward."

At the Board of Education meeting March 15, Fishbein said a 15 percent cut—or about $440,000—should be expected. In reality, the state's proposal is $2.5 million greater than anticipated.

"We were preparing for more or less than about 15 percent. To have all aid cut is quite astonishing," Ridgewood schools spokesperson Debra Anderson said.

Realizing districts "are going to face extremely difficult times financially," Schundler said the governor's public employee reforms could prevent many layoffs.

"A lot of districts will have to send out layoff notices... but if the legislature passes pension reform" many teachers will opt into early retirement and "nearly no layoffs should occur," he said.

Christie's package includes changing the pension and health benefits packages for teachers, including requiring co-pays and larger payments for pensions. The co-pays will apply to school personnel who retire after the changes are made, but not to those who leave their jobs before the proposals are enacted.

Schundler said this would allow for more quick retirements from teachers who do not want to pay part of their health insurance in retirement.

For that to work, the legislature would have to approve a pension reform bill and enough Ridgewood teachers would need to retire before the governor's August 1 deadline.

Brogan said she didn't see how that would help Ridgewood. "That argument is based on the assumption that we don't need staff. Usually when someone retires, we replace them."

In any matter, Brogan called that move a short-term solution. 

"For a few years it helps, but we're not like a company where you can downsize the staff... Unless we have a dramatic decrease in our enrollment, I don't see that working," she said.

Schundler also suggested districts could save money by having teachers contribute to health insurance—which also may increase by 30 percent.

However, Ridgewood teachers already contribute to their benefits. Brogan said it was unfair to for Christie to "paint us with the same paintbrush" as other districts as Ridgewood was "ahead of the curve" on many cost-saving program.

"It wasn't popular to privatize food service, custodians... We were efficient, and our community supported the district," she said.

Westfield Patch Editor John Celock contributed to this report.

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