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Christie's School Aid Cuts -- And Adds -- Leave Districts Uncertain About Funding

School districts anxious to know how much they'll actually get and how they can spend it.

Five days later, and New Jersey’s school districts are still trying to figure out what they’ll be getting in additional state aid -- and with what strings attached -- from Gov. Chris Christie’s new and presumably final budget.

Christie last Thursday announced a sweeping line-by-line pruning of the Democratic-controlled legislature's budget. According to the governor, while he would trim $500 million in state aid from the Democrats' spending plan, there would still be about $850 million in new money left for public schools.

Almost $450 million of that amount will go by court order to high-poverty districts like Elizabeth, Newark and Camden as part of the latest Abbott v. Burke ruling. Another $150 million will be divvied up among the other 500-plus districts, Christie said. That’s on top of the $250 million in aid already earmarked in his initial budget -- bringing total new school aid to non-Abbott districts to $400 million.

By the Numbers?

But districts had trouble following the governor's arithmetic, and questions started coming in after a holiday weekend spent trying to do the math.

The administration said right away that it would essentially double the increase that each district would have received in aid under Christie’s original budget. That works out to roughly another 1 percent of their overall budgets.

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf put it in technical terms this weekend: "We’ll be using the same distribution algorithm as was used in the last budget."

But so far, the administration has been mum on specific figures, and what restrictions, if any, it would put on the money. Christie only said "very specific" instructions would be coming.

"I have to sort it out," Cerf said, before what he termed a day of meetings yesterday.

Until he does, few districts yesterday were considering any money as firmly in hand. For example, the Edison school district had been among the biggest winners in Christie’s original budget, receiving an additional $1.9 million or a 25 percent increase in aid. Presumably the district would now receive double that amount.

“We’re proceeding on the belief that state aid will stay the same,” said Gene Maeroff, the president of the Edison school board.

Maeroff said last night that the prospect of more money was certainly welcome. It would let the district restore some more programs and staff eliminated this past school year in the face of $10 million in state aid cuts. With the funds already promised by the administration, the district was bringing back 27 staff positions, as well as middle school sports. But he said no decisions would come until official word.

“Right now we’re not committing on any more,” he said. “We haven’t gotten notice of that.”

He was echoed by others. "Until I see something definite from the state," said Robert Gratz, the Hackettstown superintendent, "I would see this as a moving target and don’t want to bank on anything."

Conflicting Instructions

The New Jersey School Boards Association sent a summary to its members yesterday of what it knew so far, as to what the districts could do with the new money.

On one hand, the governor’s clear message in his press conference on Thursday was that there would be some restrictions. On the other, the governor struck from the Democrats’ budget a specific provision that would have limited the new funds to non-administrative costs.

"Without such proscriptive budget language," the school board’s summary read, "current state law would require that each school district treat its share of the $150 million aid increase as unanticipated revenue."

"That designation would apply because school budgets have been set and local property tax levies have been struck," the summary continued. "If such statute applies, it would restrict the spending of the additional aid during the current school year and would generally reserve the new funds for property tax relief in 2012-2013."

The prospect of new restrictions concerned some who saw Christie’s restoration of funds as at least a partial victory.

One lobbyist for suburban districts, Lynne Strickland of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, said Christie’s plan "at least hit every district in a positive way."

But as for restrictions, ”that is worrisome,” she said. “We need to keep an eye on that.”

And there were others who remain concerned that Christie continues to grossly underfund the state’s own school funding formula.

Piscataway schools are among those that may have made out well under the Democrats’ plan, which at minimum would have brought the district and 214 others up to what the formula deems as "adequate." For Piscataway, that could have been $8 million more. Under Christie’s plan, the district will instead receive about $900,000 more.

"We were holding out that the legislature would work out at least some sort of magic," said Robert Copeland, the Piscataway superintendent. "Instead, it’s another crushing blow."

And even that interpretation is not entirely certain, he said, since the Democrats have vowed override votes of some of Christie’s line-item vetoes. "It leaves the rest of us wondering if we’re just all pawns in this,” Copeland said.

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