Far less state aid than expected, along with unprecedented expenses related to maintaining health and safety of students and staff, are forcing school districts throughout the Garden State to determine where they can make cuts to balance their budgets — budgets that were approved based on anticipated state aid levels that were promoted before the potential threat of COVID-19 was a concern among leaders.

New Jersey public schools learned Thursday evening exactly how $335 million in state aid promised in February will be scrapped in order to make up for dire financial straits brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Districts already losing state aid compared to Fiscal Year 2020 levels are not affected, but the announcement matters for those that are gaining aid in 2021, which is most districts. For many, their promised increase will shrink by about two-thirds, which can translate to millions of dollars, forcing administrations' hands to put certain items on the chopping block ahead of September.

"It's literally the peeling back of the onion to get to the core — things that are not required would be the first things to be looked at," said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. "We're looking at things such as athletics, co-curricular activities, transportation that's not required — it's called courtesy busing."

Staff could be cut in areas that are "not essential," he added — certain high-school electives may not be offered, for example.

Bozza said some districts had already notified non-tenured teaching staff that a contract renewal can't be offered at this time.

Elisabeth Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, said generally speaking, districts prefer to cut items that don't directly impact students.

"But the problem is, within most school districts, the vast majority of the budget is salaries and benefits," Ginsburg said.

Adding to financial tightness for the 2020-21 academic year is the added cost — perhaps several thousand dollars for districts — related to acquiring personal protective gear and supplies necessary to limit the spread of the respiratory illness, if in-person learning is permitted.

"There will be many, many, many unbudgeted, unexpected additional expenses,"  Ginsburg said.

Revised state aid figures show Newark public schools will receive $36 million less than originally expected. At $8 million, Woodbridge recorded the biggest drop in expected aid among suburban communities.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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