When Gov. Christie told school districts yesterday afternoon they should expect aid cuts up to 5 percent of their overall budgets, Jim Devereaux, the Cherry Hill district's assistant superintendent of business, couldn't believe what he was hearing.

As he watched the budget address on television in a darkened conference room, Devereaux scribbled on a legal pad and figured that amounted to half the district's state aid, a potential $8.5 million loss - not the $2.6 to $4.3 million he had been using as a working number for weeks at the state Education Department's direction.

"It was very short on specifics, but this could be a much bigger cut than we thought," he said. Devereaux said there was a "perception" in the last few days that the cut to Cherry Hill might end up being as low as $850,000.

"And now with this," he said, "we're just going to have to see what the final numbers are."

The governor's budget address yesterday, with its calls for sweeping spending cuts across the New Jersey public sector, left educators grasping for answers and, if possible, even more pessimistic about the release of districts' individual aid numbers, which could come as early as today.

The governor said the cuts would reduce state education aid by $819 million, an 8 percent drop from the current budget.

In his speech, Christie took aim at the previous administration as "irresponsible" and "guilty of a typical election-year gimmick" because it used a little more than $1 billion in one-shot federal education stimulus money to shore up the current year's budget.

The governor also took aim at the New Jersey Education Association, the union representing most of the state's teachers, encouraging legislators to enact changes to bargaining and employee benefits that would help districts contain labor costs. Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, in a separate news briefing, said some of the legislation, if enacted quickly, could reduce the need for layoffs.

Barbara Keshishian, union president, fired back, accusing Christie of "carrying out a political vendetta against NJEA" and hurting students by attacking school staff.

Christie and Schundler both yesterday called for a constitutional amendment that would limit tax increases to 2.5 percent, instead of the current 4 percent. Schundler, however, noted that school districts - which must submit budgets to the state by April 3 - are still operating under the current law, which also allows an automatic levy cap increase when state aid is reduced.

While much remained unclear last night, school boards across the state needed to move forward if they were to submit their preliminary budget by Monday's deadline.

At Cherry Hill West High School, teachers, students, and parents filled the auditorium to hear the school board discuss which programs would be prioritized in the weeks ahead.

At various points over the last month, all manner of educational, sports, and arts programs had been tentatively slated for extinction but then reinstated after outrage from the community.

Before last night's meeting began, the high school choir stood up to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," a clear effort to try and keep the program in the budget.

"It's upsetting to think I could come back to school in two or three years, and this might not be here," said Jordan Friedman, a 17-year-old junior, who organized the choir's appearance at the meeting.

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.