When Gov. Chris Christie releases his state budget next week, his proposed income tax cut will grab a lot of attention. But the biggest -- and possibly the toughest -- questions may have to do with state aid to schools, which accounts for one-third of the overall budget.
The Christie administration has so far been mum or at best vague as to what it will propose for public schools next year.
Meanwhile, acting education commissioner Chris Cerf has been working on a court-ordered report to the legislature that revisits the formulas used in the School Funding Reform Act to determine if they provide enough -- or too much -- aid to districts.
Although SFRA covers all New Jersey school districts, if the formulas are revised it could have a significant effect on the 31 so-called Abbott Districts. The state Supreme Court ordered Christie to fully fund these districts under SFRA, which resulted in a $477 million increase in school aid this year.
Cerf isn't discussing the report’s conclusions, but lobbyists and others expect it could spell some tightening of the purse for some of the Abbott districts.
“I think some of them will be happy to keep what they have,” said Michael Vrancik, lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
The idea of the administration tinkering with SFRA is not going over well with the legislature.
“We’re hearing rumors that he is going play around with the funding formula.,” said state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) in an interview. “If they drop that in our lap that’s radical in its changes, we won’t allow it."
“We have a formula that works and is fair,” he said. “There’s just no way we are taking up [big changes].”
Christie has said his proposed 10 percent income tax doesn’t preclude an increase in school aid. But he has not hid his contempt for how much aid the state’s urban districts receive under the Abbott v. Burke rulings.
The various signals have left school districts a little nervous about their fate.
Several superintendents said they were told by state officials to draw up a budget with level funding from the state. Others said the state hinted to as much as a 2 percent increase.
“Our members are certainly wary of any changes coming,” said Vrancik. “If he is going to cut income taxes, he is going to have ways to operate public schools less expensively.”
Christie is in a bit of a box with school aid, which he cut by 5 percent in his first budget and then restored one fifth of that across the board last year.
State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the Senate’s budget chairman, called state aid to schools an “integral part of this year’s budget.”
”And with all the other demands that are out there,” he said, “it will be interesting to how they propose to deal with it.
“The courts have been pretty clear that he has to begin to fund (SFRA), and at the end of the day, it will be critical to see how he is going to handle it,” Sarlo added.
One option out there is tapping into so-called adjustment aid to schools, close to $600 million this year to help prevent cuts in Abbott and lower-middle class districts. Eliminating or phasing out that extra aid, as the court permitted, could provide some additional aid to suburban districts, lobbyists said.
“If my members were held to flat funding, it would be hard to be content with that,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents mostly suburban districts.
David Abbott, superintendent of Marlboro schools and president of the Garden State Coalition, said districts are growing resigned to the austere times in the aftermath of Christie’s cuts in his first budget.
Now with a 2 percent property tax cap in place, he said additional aid to the schools would likely just go back to taxpayers in his district. “We’ve learned to live with scarcity mentality,” he said.
“But you don’t hear as much gravitas from districts,” he continued. “We’ve learned to live with less. And it’s not like anyone would much listen to us anyway.”