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New York Post

 

Yes, There's Bloat In NJ's Schools

April 09, 2010

By Steven Malanga

Gov. Chris Christie is trying to solve New Jersey’s chronic bud get problems by cutting spending, including state aid to local schools. But the state’s powerful teacher unions and many school boards are balking -- claiming that this will either drive up local property taxes or result in devastating cuts to school services.

In fact, there’s plenty of fat to cut. For proof, just take a close look at the recent hiring and spending patterns of Jersey’s school districts: Both hiring and spending have risen far faster than can be justified by the mild growth in enrollment. Thus, most should have plenty of room to cut spending without major impact.

Given the state’s chronic budget woes, the schools’ hiring spree defies logic. Since 2001, just as budget problems began in earnest, public-school enrollment in Jersey has risen by less than 3 percent, or slightly more than 36,000 students. But total school hiring (full-time employees and equivalents) has jumped by 14 percent, or nearly 28,000 employees, according to federal Census statistics.

That’s right: Jersey’s schools have added three-quarters of an employee for every new student -- during a period of deep fiscal pain for the state. Most of the new hires were teachers -- which is more than one new instructional worker for every two new students.

The hiring spree, along with rich benefit increases, has fueled payrolls. Wage costs alone have increased 43 percent since 2001 -- well ahead of the inflation rate plus enrollment growth.

But the real budget-buster has been health and pension costs. Between 2001 and 2006 (the latest year data are available), total benefit costs rose by a whopping 115 percent, adding several billion dollars to school costs.

After this runup, outlays are now a whopping $16,000 per student, nearly 60 percent above the national average. Jersey already was a leader in this spending category back in 2001; the spending spree has widened the gap, at great taxpayer cost.

There’s been little educational payoff. Performance on national education-assessment tests has been a mixed bag. On crucial eighth-grade reading tests, for instance, the percentage of Jersey students scoring at or above proficient in 2009 was just 42 percent, up slightly from 38 percent in 2005.

But the spending has deepened the state’s budget and economic problems. Jersey now has the highest combined state and local tax burden in the country -- yet has been in an almost perpetual budget crisis since 2001.

To fund state spending, Govs. James McGreevey and Jon Corzine hiked taxes by billions of dollars -- devastating the state’s economy. Jersey has had no private job growth in the last decade and missed out even on the 2004-’06 expansion that most other states enjoyed.

But the tax hikes didn’t solve the budget crisis. The key reason: As the above data suggest, the spending hasn’t slowed.

If anything, the numbers suggest that Christie’s approach, which is to finally start weaning local schools off continual increases in state aid, is the only way to bring spending in line.

In response, the teacher unions (and allied school boards) are trying to prompt a crisis. Most locals have refused to renegotiate their contracts with wage and benefit concessions -- though Christie has pointed out that if teachers merely accepted a one-year wage freeze and a moderate contribution toward health costs, school districts wouldn’t have to make further cuts.

The unions hope, instead, to present voters with a choice between “devastating” spending cuts or property-tax increases.

Voters shouldn’t buy it. One look at hiring and spending in Jersey suggests its schools are far from starved for resources.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/yes_there_bloat_in_nj_schools_ngZJRi9YViWlhzeHc4nmWP

 

 
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