A student disembarks from a bus on the first day of school in September 2016 at St. Dominic School, Brick. Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year includes $9 million in cuts for nonpublic school students. Jennifer Mauro photo

A student disembarks from a bus on the first day of school in September 2016 at St. Dominic School, Brick. Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year includes $9 million in cuts for nonpublic school students. Jennifer Mauro photo

By EmmaLee Italia | Correspondent

New Jersey Catholic education took an enormous hit March 12 when Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year was released. To the disappointment of the state’s Catholic institutions, the proposed cuts would total $9 million in resources lost for nonpublic school students.

“The news is quite distressing,” said George V. Corwell, director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference office of education, in a letter to diocesan network directors. “Not only did we not receive the increase in transportation, but the Governor also returned all non-public accounts to their figures in his previous year’s budget proposal.”

The proposed decrease would deny an increase in funds not only for transportation aid – which had remained flat since 2007-2008 – but also reduces aid for school nurses and technology. The security program would be eliminated completely.

“The budget cut in its current form can significantly affect the 17,134 students attending Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton, as well as other nonpublic school students, as services are negated or reduced,” said JoAnn Tier, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools.

Safety at Risk

Security for nonpublic schools was funded at $7.5 million in the 2017 fiscal year budget. “The funding previously provided for such things like security doors with video monitors, locks on windows and classroom doors, window-darkening shades and walkie-talkies,” said Frances Koukotas, diocesan director of the New Jersey Network of Catholic School Families. “That’s gone now.”

“The ‘Secure Schools for All Children Act’ becomes an oxymoron, as it appears to put less importance on the safety of nonpublic school students,” Tier said. The act, which established a state aid program to provide security services, equipment or technology to help ensure a safe and secure nonpublic school environment, was just signed into law in September.

Gary S. Schaer, New Jersey Assemblyman and chair of the Assembly Budget Committee (D-Bergen/Passaic), criticized Gov. Christie for the budget cuts, citing numerous recent threats to Jewish institutions.

“It is disconcerting that the Governor ostensibly supported providing funding to secure nonpublic schools just months ago, but now… he eliminates it,” Schaer said. “Any parent who ever has had to drop a child off at school in the morning knows how important it is to be able to rest assured that the school is safe … Every child, regardless of the school he or she attends, has the right to a safe learning environment.”

The FY 2017 final budget included an allocation of $50 per student to each school district in the state for nonpublic school security. The per-pupil allocation of security funding for children attending New Jersey’s public schools is $144, Schaer noted.

Health, Tech and Transport

Tier further noted that the decrease is an additional hardship for schools that were already struggling to meet their nursing needs in FY2017.

“Current funding for nursing services does not fully cover the school day in our Catholic schools,” Tier said. “Most schools hire a part-time nurse, increasing the school’s operating budget.  The part-time nurse addresses the needs of the students, as state-funded nursing services fall short of covering the entire school day.”

Technology, the need for which will only continue to grow, also loses financial ground, with proposed cuts of $951,000 statewide – a decrease that directly impacts STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum.

“In promoting STEM, technology is integrated into the academic experience, creating deep connections and thinking … it’s a part of every child’s education,” said Tier.

Nonpublic school transportation remains a critical issue for the NJCC and the NJNCSF, who have been working to petition the Governor’s office for an increase in busing dollars. Currently the $884 per student rate only covers about half the cost.

The NJCC website details the transportation challenge, and various ways in which nonpublic schools have attempted to rectify the shortfall of funding, including “centralized stops, changes in arrival and dismissal times in schools, having routes bid at fewer than 180 days, and mixing public and nonpublic students on buses” as potential solutions – none of which have solved the problem outright.

“This year we have lost a significant number of Catholic school students statewide because of transportation,” the fact sheet explains. “The only remaining solution is to raise the per pupil amount.”

 Both Gov. John Corzine’s and Gov. Christie’s administrations have frozen the amount, the NJCC further explains, ignoring the fact that the transportation statute authorizing the per-pupil amount  calls for an annual increase in direct proportion to the increase in the state transportation aid in the year prior.

Advocating for Change

State legislators still have an opportunity to submit modifications to the budget. “The budget must be signed by the Governor by June 30,” said Koukotas. “There are about three and a half months to try to get changes made.”

Ultimately the decision rests with the Governor, who can redline any changes by the Democrat-controlled state Assembly and Senate. But that isn’t stopping the NJCC, NJNCSF and school principals from taking immediate action.

“I’ve already started planning to bring assemblypersons to some of our schools,” said Koukotas, who has been fighting the battle over nonpublic school transportation aid since 2007. “Last year I brought principals and parents to the representatives’ offices. This year I’m bringing the legislators to the schools.”

Koukotas wants those on the state budget committees to see the school campuses and talk to the principals, nurses and technology coordinators, showing them how state funding has been utilized. “I want them to meet the [staff] and see the work they do all day,” she explained.

If school principals wish, they can invite select school parents with a unique perspective to join them during their meetings with legislators, giving them an opportunity to express their concerns. Koukotas will also keep parents and the larger school community aware of the need to advocate on behalf of the children, noted Tier.

“The New Jersey Network of Catholic School Families provides amazing advocacy, promoting and endorsing initiatives affecting our Catholic schools students,” Tier said. Using social media, school websites, phone calls and letter writing are all part of the NJNCSF’s communication, as well as encouraging parents to utilize the electronic Voter Voice option via the NJCC website.

“It is important that the broader community also make their voices heard,” Tier continued. “Parents sending their children to our Catholic schools pay significant taxes to support public schools and initiatives in the state of New Jersey. It is my belief that nonpublic school students should be afforded equal access to key services provided to public school students.”

To learn more about efforts to restore needed funding in the state budget, go to njcatholic.org/issues.