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Yesterday’s column about Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan’s tone-deaf answers to legislators’ questions at the Budget and Appropriations meeting focused on her refusal to confront the “deplorable” learning loss among K-12 students.
But there was one other noteworthy subject as Murphy’s Commissioner defended the Department of Education’s budget: her abject failure to effectively spend emergency COVID aid from the Biden Administration. In response, Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz lambasted Allen-McMillan for having to return $3.6 million in unspent money despite critical needs.
As Tina Kelley reports at nj.com, Allen-McMillan insisted there was no need to spend any more money than the $20 billion in Gov. Murphy’s budget for public education.
Ruiz pushed back:
“The state did not spend all of its federal CARES COVID relief aid, returning $3.6 million unspent, most in entitlements that the state’s 665 districts should have received. (In January, national figures ranked New Jersey near the bottom nationally in distributing its aid.) The commissioner did not explain why this had happened, and the department’s press office did not immediately respond to that question either.”
“I’t’s shameful for any of us to send back a quarter to the feds,’ Ruiz said, noting that she would have spent that money for a pilot summer reading program or sent it to a district to help repair a roof. ‘It’s absurd to me that we would have sent any money back.’ She implored the commissioner to stay on top of future funding deadlines and prevent this from happening again.”
At recent State Board of Education meetings, Allen-McMillan has celebrated the state’s New Jersey Partnership for Student Success, which intended to recruit 5,000 volunteer tutors to accelerate learning and help kids catch up. At the last meeting earlier this month, a State Board member asked how many tutors the DOE had recruited since the Commissioner’s last tally of a measly 400. Allen-McMillan replied that she didn’t have exact figures.
This time, under Ruiz’s interrogation, the Commissioner admitted to a grand total of 465 responses. That’s less than 10% of the 5,000 promised to schools and it’s unclear how many of those “responses” will result in actual tutors. “When does that translate to a tangible program?” Ruiz asked. “At this rate, you reach 5,000 long after this administration is gone.”
[Note: what if the DOE had used that $3.6 million in federal money we’re returning to hire experienced tutors instead of relying on the kindness of strangers? I’m guessing we’d have more tutors.]
Ruiz also asked about Allen-McMillan’s inability to fully staff the DOE; currently 16% of positions are vacant, yet another sign of a dysfunctional state agency.
Allen-McMillan isn’t the only leader to come under fire for unspent federal emergency funds. Senate Republicans have been blasting the Murphy Administration for failing to spend $5 billion in COVID money and drafted a plan allocating the funds, including $500 million for public schools to prevent the school aid cuts proposed by Murphy for three years. The draft was rejected by Senate Democrats. Like the DOE’s $3.6 million unused money, the $5 billion will be returned to the federal government.
Photo credit: Flickr, Phil Murphy