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With a toss of a wrench into New Jersey’s school district budgets, Commissioner Lucille Davy sent a letter to all superintendents on Friday recommending that everyone start cutting. According to today’s Press of Atlantic City, Davy wrote,

Given the uncertainty of the magnitude and impact of a prolonged national recession on our state’s fiscal situation, I am recommending that you take the same steps that we have taken in the department.

She goes on to specify in the letter that those “same steps” include an immediate freeze on all “nonessential spending” and a review of “all expenditures.” She also broadly hinted that the new preschool initiative, which would oblige all districts to provide full-day programming for needy 3 and 4-year-olds, would be delayed.

What does this mean for local districts? Big cuts. Since all districts are contractually obligated to follow bargaining agreements from local unions, which typically call for big hikes in salaries and benefits, we’ll see cuts in programming, increased class size, and lay-offs of non-tenured personnel. But they’re working in the dark, since the state aid numbers, usually about $8.2 billion, won’t be announced til March, considerably later than previous years.

Despite heroic efforts at frugality on the part of school boards, residents can still vote down school budgets in April, since the legislation eliminating public votes on budgets that fall below the 4% cap is stalled in the State Legislature. If budgets fail to pass, then they go to municipal governments, who, given the current national mood, may actually demand cuts though historically they’ve barely tinkered along the edges. So your local boards will mutter the mantra “don’t try this at home” and make cuts themselves, attempting to save schools from the perilous situation of non-educators playing with power tools.

Update: Here’s Davy’s letter.

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