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Underfunded Rural School Districts Seek Redress in Court

Bacon v. DOE hopes to follow up on Abbott v. Burke, this time for rural districts.

Abbott v. Burke may get all the attention in New Jersey, but another case almost as old is heading back to court to challenge how the Christie administration funds schools.

Lawyers for 16 poor rural districts -- virtually all in South Jersey -- have gone back to the state appeals court to contend that they, too, are entitled to full funding under the state's school funding law.

The districts are part of the Bacon v. New Jersey Department of Education case that was first filed in 1997 as a rural version of the Abbott case, which was on behalf of the state's highest-poverty urban districts.

The Bacon case involves districts like Buena Regional, Clayton, Egg Harbor City, and Hammonton and maintains that these districts have also been underfunded for years due to their poverty.

The districts won a series of rulings by the courts and the State Board of Education, most recently in 2008, and the case was a big impetus to the state's current School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). That law was enacted under former Gov. Jon Corzine as a way to get more funding to districts with high levels of poverty but not falling under the Abbott case.

Steep Cuts

A great deal has happened since. Gov. Chris Christie's steep cuts in school aid last year led the Abbott districts to return to court. The state Supreme Court found on their behalf and this spring ordered close to $500 million in additional funding. It stopped short of ordering the same remedy for all districts, as some had asked.

Now it's the Bacon districts' turn. Their lawyer filed for emergency relief before the appellate court, contending that the state also failed in their cases to meet its court-ordered obligation to fully fund SFRA.

"I am asking for retroactive funding, and of course, full funding going forward," said Frederick Jacob, the Millville attorney who has represented the Bacon districts from the start.

"Our districts also have a court decision that they have been constitutionally deprived, and yet weren't ordered to get additional money," he said. "Maybe it was a lower court, but it's still binding on the state."

He said if his districts were to receive full funding, it would amount to about $30 million in additional aid -- a far cry from the $447 million ordered for the Abbotts. The court brief put the amount at $24.2 million in 2011.

"We're not that big, it's not that expensive," Jacob said. "And instead districts have had to lay off tons of teachers, tons of staff."

No Comment

Christie's education commissioner, Chris Cerf, yesterday wouldn't comment on the challenge, citing the pending litigation.

But he and the governor have long said that the state's funding formula needs to be based as much on policies dictating the effective use of money as on the money itself. It was the basis of their defense in the latest Abbott case, which they lost, but Christie has said he is pursuing changes to the entire funding formula for next year's budget.

Lawyers for the Abbott districts are joining in support of the Bacon districts in the challenge. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center (ELC), said the Bacon districts are picking up where the latest Abbott decision left off and deserve the same remedy. He said they would have received full funding if not for Christie's veto of the so-called millionaire's tax.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of work we have going forward," he said. "There are still 200 other districts that are under adequacy funding, and this really crystallizes the need to focus on next year's budget and finishing the job."

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