Gov. Chris Christie has survived one court challenge to his cuts in school aid.
In the first of two major school funding cases before state courts, a state appeals court yesterday ruled that Christie did not overstep his authority this spring in issuing an executive order that withheld $475 million in aid for the current year, forcing districts to spend down their surpluses instead.
Perth Amboy schools had challenged Executive Order 14, saying that it ran counter to legislative statute that required districts to use any excess surplus toward their next year’s budget.
But the appeals court unanimously found that both statute and the New Jersey Constitution allowed the administration to freeze the aid and order the transfer of funds in the face of the state’s fiscal crisis.
"The Legislature clearly contemplated that situations may arise whereby a district will need to use its excess surplus for matters other than the next year's operating budget," read the court’s unanimous decision.
The court also found that Perth Amboy had failed to prove it would be harmed by the cut or would fail to meet its educational obligations.
“Appellant has not shown that it will be unable to meet its obligation to provide a (thorough and efficient) education this year if the State withholds aid, or that it will not have adequate funding next school year,” the decision read.
Christie’s press spokesman, Michael Drewniak, said the decision was vindication.
“This was among the most difficult decisions the Governor had to make shortly after assuming office to help close a $2 billion gap in the current year’s budget,” said Drewniak’s statement. “We know using surplus balances was a difficult step for school districts, but it was an urgent and necessary step amid a fiscal emergency."
“In that sense the Governor is pleased that the Appellate Court recognized his significant responsibilities and executive authority during a fiscal and economic crisis,” he said.
Perth Amboy’s attorney, Richard Shapiro, said he would not comment until he spoke with his client. Efforts to reach Perth Amboy officials were unsuccessful.
It still could be a busy summer in court for the administration, since it also faces challenge before the state Supreme Court to its $1.1 billion in additional cuts for next year.
Under the long-running Abbott v. Burke school equity case, the Education Law Center in Newark last week filed for an injunction preventing the cuts. The law center maintains the court in its last Abbott decision said the state’s aid formula is only constitutional as long as it is fully funded.