Watch the full Hyperlocal News Association meeting here.

In advance of Governor Christie’s budget address, 60 people came out to the Rutgers Graduate Student Lounge in New Brunswick to learn insider tips and tools for following and reporting on the upcoming school budget season. 

The forum, hosted by the New Jersey Hyperlocal News Association and Citizens’ Campaign, brought together journalists, citizen activists, and education advocates from across the state to learn the intricacies of crafting and adopting a school budget.  

BUDGET BASICS

Bernards Township Superintendent Valerie Goger kicked off the panel discussion with a breakdown of the major expenses in her school district's budget.

The major cost areas include: Salaries and benefits  (72%);  Operations & Maintenance (11%);   Transportation (6%); and Special Education 5%.

In most municipalities, state aid will be significantly smaller this year, and the school budget increases will be capped at 2%. Many superintendents and school boards will look to staff cuts and benefits reductions to hold costs down.

BUDGET PROCESS

School boards will be grappling with these budgets over the next two months. Jonathan Busch, a noted school board attorney with Schwartz, Simon, Edelstein & Celso, laid out how the budget is developed and adopted.

On February 24th the budget picture will be a little clearer; this is the deadline for the Governor to notify school districts of how much state aid they will receive.   The amount of state aid received will directly impact how deep the budgets cuts will be in your town. 

Once the budget is prepared and filed with the County Superintendent for approval, the School District must hold at least one public hearing.  This year the public hearing will occur between March 22nd and March 29th.

After hearing from the public, the School District will prepare and vote on a final budget before April 18th, and send the budget statement to the county clerk for the public vote.  It is important to note that Board of Education members are not allowed to publicly advocate for the passage or defeat of a school budget. 

On Wednesday, April 29th the public will finally have their chance to register their opinion on the school budget at the polls.  

If a school budget is defeated, it is sent to the municipal governing body. At this point the School Board loses control over the process, and the power shifts to municipal authorities.  The municipality has until May 19th to adopt the budget.

Special Note: In a small number of New Jersey municipalities, including the city where today's forum was held, an entirely different budget process is employed.  Known as Type I districts, these governments do not elect School Board members or vote on a budget. Instead, a five-member Board of School Estimate including representatives from the appointed Board of Education and the municipal governing body craft the budget with input from the public. 

DIGGING DEEPER

NJSpotlight.com founder and education writer John Mooney spoke to the journalists in the room, advising them on what leads to follow.  He said local reporters have more resources to draw from to understand the big picture:

  • Get a historical perspective, begin by looking at the past budgets and public votes. Is there a trend? Are budgets always approved or always defeated?  How have the spending habits of the school district changed? Read the Department of Education’s Comparative Spending Guide
  • 24 Charter Schools were recently approved, and another 16 are on the way—if your town is getting a charter school, look at how the funding formula will impact the overall budget.
  • Review and become familiar with the district's teacher contract. Where are the perks? What is the salary schedule?

Beyond these topics, it is incredibly important for any new beat reporter to build strong and amiable relationships with key education officials, including the Superintendent, the Union President, and School Principals. 

This event was second in a series of "Road Map" stories being put together for members of the Hyperlocal News Association. Visits http://www.njhna.org or www.JoinTheCampaign.com to register for future Road Map Feature Events.