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For Paterson schools, a crisis looms: Local control could mean teacher layoffs, tax hikes

PATERSON, NJ — Tens of thousands of students in Paterson, one of New Jersey's largest cities, are facing a crisis: Their chronically underfunded public school system will soon have to resort to drastic measures, like cutting hundreds of teachers, to keep running.

The district has spent the past 27 years under state control, which means that 85 percent of their funding has come from the state— and they've already had no choice but to lay off hundreds of people to save money. Complicating the problem has been taxes — or lack thereof:  Two-thirds of Paterson’s properties — public buildings and properties owned by non-profit organizations — are not taxable. The remaining third of the properties include hundreds of abandoned lots that generate little to no revenue.

Panic is rolling through the city because it's about to get a lot worse: Paterson will soon be back on the hook for not just  15 percent, but all of its education-funding costs, as the the city is poised to regain total control of schools from the state.

To make the numbers work under local control, Paterson's school board voted to fire hundreds of people —  most of them teachers — and raise taxes 14 percent as a stopgap measure. Board Member Nakima Redmon said she doesn't like the budget, but knew what she had to do as a "responsible, elected official."

“We understand that we don’t have the resources that we need to provide a thorough and efficient education," Redmon said.

To be sure, Paterson sought this change, seeking to chart its own fate. But even so, the plan was set forth by the state, and Paterson now finds itself between a  rock and a hard place,  according to teachers union officials and education advocates.

There are already 30 to 32 students per class, according to Charles Ferrer of the nonprofit Paterson Education Association.

“We’re going to be at 40," he said. "The only way that we’re going to get this right, is the parents of the children of this town have to begin to fight."

Rosie Grant of the Paterson Education Fund is concerned about what will happen to students.

“What about the kids we’re losing to the streets? Or the prison system? Or to the grave? We will continue to lose kids if we don’t give them the education that they all need and deserve," Grant said.

This isn't the first time Paterson has been in such trouble. The district laid off 526 staff members over the past 10 years because it was underfunded $280 million, according to Schools Superintendent Eileen Shafer.

"We have gradually tried to bring back media specialists for our libraries, a nurse in every building, and this year we brought back an art-in-elementary-school program,”  Shafer said.

Amid the chaos,  there are bright spots in the district, including PS 28, the city’s first ever Blue Ribbon school, a national program noting schools for their excellence.

But clouds of uncertainty hang over that Blue Ribbon status. Paterson is now seeking $12 million in loans just to close the $22 million dollar budget gap. They offered student textbooks as collateral for those loans. Shafer called it the right move.

"It gives us a loan at a low interest rate over time. The textbooks remain in the district," Shafer said. "It also alleviated $12 million worth of cuts to programs and more staff that we didn’t’ have to address.”

Democratic New Jersey State Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, who sits on the Budget Committee, has some ideas about fixes.

“The right answer is probably some emergent aid to make sure we do not leave these positions vacant," Wimberly said. "The long term is to rework the formula for these districts that are under these situations. The bottom line is, when you look at your large, urban districts – this does not work.”

But Paterson parent Kadeen Rowe and others like her say they don’t have the luxury of waiting for state officials to change fundamental school funding formulas.

“I’m worried that my kids will be affected," Rowe said. "Whatever that challenge is that they face in the school system – I’d like to hear it first hand, and see where I can help them."

Paterson's ultimate fate, however, will remain murky until the state releases its final budget next month.

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