As Bernards Township schools prepare to put the finishing touches on the district's 2013-14 school budget during the next few weeks, another big funding question is looming on the horizon — whether federal cuts will go through this Friday that could result in a loss of almost $12 million worth of federal education cuts statewide.
"Any loss in aid is serious," Bernards Schools Superintendent Nick Markarian said on Monday. "However, at this time we have not identified anything specific that we would cut should there be a loss in aid," Markarian said.
Markarian said it was premature as of Monday to guess how much funding the school district might stand to lose if Congress allows a proposed $85 billion in federal "sequestration" spending cuts to go through by Friday.
The uncertainty about federal funding arrives the same week that school districts around New Jersey are waiting to hear state aid figures for next year after Gov. Chris Christie delivers his fiscal year 2014 budget address Tuesday afternoon.
Some school districts, including neighboring Somerset Hills in Bernardsville, have worked up budget figures for next year's proposed budget with a "guesstimate" for state aid figures, but acknowledge that the state aid could change the final budget before it is adopted in March.
The Bernards Township school district is scheduled to adopt its 2013-14 school budget following a public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. on March 28 at the Performing Arts Center at Ridge High School.
A large part of the federal cutbacks are targeted for education, and Somerset County Freeholder Peter Palmer, a Bernardsville resident, said he isn't surprised.
Palmer, a Republican, also said he believes the Obama administration is aiming the cuts at areas that would hurt the most people, so as to create the most public opposition to proposed spending reductions. "That's the way the game is played," he said.
Without action from Congress, the sequester would go into effect automatically on March 1, reducing spending by the state in a number of areas, including education, the environment, health, military and law enforcement, the White House said. New Jersey could lose nearly $12 million in funding for primary and secondary education if Congress fails to halt the “sequestration” by Friday, according to figures released by the White House.
Palmer said he is sure such cuts would affect Somerset County government as a whole, "But I have no idea how much." He said late on Monday afternoon that he believes that estimating the impact is meaningless at this point. "Something will happen between now and Friday."
Palmer added that he believes that something must be done to address federal spending, but he wouldn't be surprised if the issue is pushed off into the future again.
Little direct effect expected on township budget
Bernards Township Administrator Bruce McArthur said he expected there would be little direct effect on township operations within the municipality.
"The impacts here would involve 'trickle down' funds from the state for the most part," McArthur said. "I’m not sure how much of the funds in the NJDOT [New Jersey Department of Transportation] program are derived from the feds, but we typically receive $150,000 to $200,000 annually in that program," he said late on Monday afternoon.
McArthur said the largest grant to the municipality over the last 10 years was a federal “Drug Free Communities” grant, but that expired last September and the operational costs for the program have been phased out out the budget.
At this point, the only federal grants coming in are relatively small amounts for police body armor vests, McArthur said.
Neither Markarian or Nancy Hunter, business administrator in the Somerset Hills district, said their offices had reached out to the U.S. Congressman for both towns, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance, a Republican representing the 7th district.
Lance said he supports cuts unless 'last-minute agreement'
"Barring a last-minute agreement, however, I support letting the across-the-board cuts take effect on Friday as planned," Lance said in a statement to Patch late Monday afternoon.
Lance said he has been among those in Congress who support "a more laser-like approach toward reducing spending and our national debt that exceeds $16 trillion."
Lance said in his statement to Republicans in U.S. Congress voted twice, in May and December of 2012, to to replace the current sequester scenario with what he said were "smarter, more targeted cuts."
"Yet the President opposed those efforts and for his part has failed to put forth a serious, credible alternative," Lance said on Monday. "I certainly believe the president needs to show more leadership on this issue."
The cuts, according to the Obama administration, could jeopardize 160 teacher and aide jobs in New Jersey, as well as cut funding to 60 schools and 15,000 students.
Funding would be cut to the early childhood education program Head Start, vaccination programs for children and health services for seniors, among other things, and thousands of civilian Department of Defense employees could be furloughed, according to information released by the White House.
The total federal spending cuts under the sequester add up to about $1.2 trillion over the next nine years.
Republicans have accused the president of using the impending cuts for political gain. President Barack Obama's plan asks for increased tax revenues to offset some of the trillion-dollar cuts.