donwebsterBoard members know better than most people how hard it is to balance competing interests; to choose to fund one worthy program or initiative over another.

After all, it is boards of education – acting on their superintendent’s recommendations – that must ultimately decide to cut a particular course or extracurricular program, to increase class sizes in a particular grade, or to concentrate the distribution of new tablet computers in one school over another.

Those hard decisions get even harder when a school district is handed a mandate by the state or federal government. While the constitutional amendment passed by New Jersey’s voters in 1995 that barred new unfunded mandates has helped boards, I hear stories all the time about how districts are grappling with the challenge of complying with mandates that are underfunded.

The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, statewide testing, special education, TeachNJ/AchieveNJ, and workers compensation and pension costs for non-certified staff have all combined to place extreme downward pressure on districts’ ability to maintain staffing and education programs for all students. Financial burdens placed on local districts by underfunded programs, along with the 2 percent tax levy cap have eroded school funding to the point where an increasing number of traditionally stable school districts are now reducing staff and programs.

Proposals in the Congress to further reduce federal spending on the ESSA and IDEA programs will only serve to worsen an already difficult situation for these mandated programs and continue the cost shift to local taxpayers.

Districts have implemented many cost-saving measures in recent years, saving money on transportation, energy, special education, recycling, computerization, purchasing, and liability insurance, among other things. However, the opportunities for further dramatic cost-saving reductions now appear to be rapidly dwindling.

The other strategy school districts employ to comply with mandates is to redirect the time and efforts of existing staff members. We have to tell staff to cut back on their normal duties, in order to meet various new requirements.

For example, in my own district, when the anti-bullying law was enacted, we couldn’t afford to hire additional staff to comply with the law’s mandates, nor could we hire an outside contractor. Instead we deployed our guidance staff to fulfill these duties. But that meant that they couldn’t spend the time they had been spending counseling students and families on academics and other matters.

This issue of School Leader features a look at an in-depth survey that NJSBA did on unfunded/underfunded mandates, and reports on recommendations that were made. The article begins on page 26.

I am not suggesting that initiatives like the anti-bullying law, mandated statewide testing, the new teacher evaluation system, and the increased special education services that have evolved in recent years are not worth undertaking. They are. However, school districts need adequate funding to put these new initiatives into effect while still providing the educational services they have already been providing.

State and federal lawmakers and regulators should have the same type of conversations that board members have at budget time, so they can figure out how to pay for the programs they want our schools to implement.

Donald Webster, Jr. is NJSBA’s president.