The new $32.7 billion New Jersey state budget, which was signed by Governor Phil Murphy on September 29, brought applause from Jewish groups that lobby in Trenton.
“This was not an easy budget for anyone,” Joshua Cohen said. Mr. Cohen heads the Jewish Federations of New Jersey, the public affairs of the state’s leading Jewish federations, including the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.
“We commend the governor and legislature for negotiating a fiscal year budget that is a confirmation of our shared values, a deep and unwavering commitment to serve our most vulnerable population through a wide array of programs and services,” Mr. Cohen said.
“A number of our most pressing advocacy asks were included in the budget,” he added. These include the state’s non-profit security grant program, the Holocaust survivors assistance program, and a temporary wage increase for staff that provide direct services for people with development disorders, as well as funding for food and hunger initiatives.
“Additionally, we were pleased to see funding for non-public school security and non-public school nursing programs,” Mr. Cohen said.
TeachNJ is an Orthodox Union-led advocacy initiative to increase state support of yeshivot and other private schools. The organization praised an increase in per capita aid to private schools, as well as the renewal of a $5 million annual grant for a program that pays public school STEM teachers to moonlight in private schools.
Renewing the STEM grant was a particular challenge for TeachNJ, because last year’s allocation — the first — was not fully spent in the last budget year.
“We had to fight tooth and nail to get that back in,” Dan Mitzner said. Mr. Mitzner is the director of state political affairs for the Teach Coalition, which coordinates the OU’s various state-based Teach campaigns. “We had to make our voice loud and work very hard,” he said.
The grants got off to a slow start last year, because the state couldn’t start implementing it until the budget in which it was funded was approved. That was in 2019.
That didn’t give participating private schools enough time to bring the teachers who would have been funded by the program into the schools for the 2019 school year.
So far, few Jewish schools in North Jersey have applied for these grants. Among those that have is Yeshiva Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck and the Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston. Debbie Finkelstein, the dean of faculty and instruction at Kushner, said the high school’s grant under the program “just came through.
“We were able to have four teachers from Livingston and West Orange who were thrilled to be able to join our Kushner team and take advantage of the opportunity,” she said. “We were probably the first school to have all our paperwork in for these teachers.
“The first deadline for the grant process might have been in March. Then the schools shut down. Throughout this pandemic, Dr. Steven Stein” — the head of the school’s science department — “and I both interviewed all of the prospective teachers. Once we narrowed it down to the four, there was a tremendous amount of paperwork, a lot of jumping through hoops.”
With that out of the way, now it’s a question of aligning the teachers’ schedules with the modified schedules Kushner has adopted to deal with covid. “These plans were put into place before we knew certain adjustment we put into our schedules,” Ms. Finkelstein said.
At Kushner, the high school STEM track features a four-year curriculum with an introduction to computer science and engineering in the ninth grade, scientific engineering in tenth grade, genetic engineering in eleventh grade, and biomedical engineering in twelfth grade.
The four new state-funded teachers will take some of the students in existing classes and will also teach new electives.
“We’re really grateful to be able to bring these high caliber teachers into our school,” Ms. Finkelstein said.
The budget also increases other line items for private schools. Per capita security funding increased from $150 per pupil to $175. Nursing funding increased less dramatically, from $97 to $102 per pupil. And for the first time in more than a decade, the budget for non-public “auxiliary and handicapped services” saw a budget increase, of $2 million, to around $30 million.
“All in all it’s been a significant increase in funding for our schools,” Mr. Mitzner said.
This came even as “the economic condition for increases is very challenging. The money is just not there. That was a tremendous hurdle to overcome. Revenues are down by such a great degree.”
Mr. Mitzner said that the distancing made necessary by the pandemic changed the process of lobbying for the better.
“It has made it easier to advocate,” he said. “Our meetings have all moved to Zoom. There’s much more flexibility in how we meet, and we have definitely been speaking to a lot more people and getting activists in front of legislators in a way we wouldn’t have before due to the difficulty of setting up meetings in representatives’ districts or in Trenton.”