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Budget Review: School Aid, Pricey Consultants Are Scrutinized

Despite prodding, Sarlo doesn’t expect changes in education budget

Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.
Credit: Amanda Brown
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

The Christie administration’s education budget was first up for the Democrat-controlled legislature’s review yesterday, facing a barrage of questions from the fairness of its funding for local schools to the high-priced consultants hired inside the state department itself.

The target of the mostly polite questioning was acting education commissioner Chris Cerf, who with his top staff, sat through more than four hours of inquiry from the Senate budget committee about his decisions and policies on a broad range of topics, not all of them budget related.

Through it all, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the committee’s chairman, said it was unlikely much will change in the final budget. It nevertheless led to some political theater.

Exhibit A was Christie’s much-vaunted proposal for a $213 million increase in state aid to local districts, a centerpiece of the Republican governor’s budget message. But it received a cool welcome from Democrats and even a few Republicans.

Sarlo immediately questioned the administration’s math that claimed it was a record-high amount of aid to local districts.

Instead, Sarlo pointed to analysis of the legislature’s non-partisan Office of Legislative Services that the funding still left a majority of districts short of their aid from before Gov. Chris Christie took office two years ago.

Cerf responded that the aid in 2010 included more than $1 billion in federal stimulus money that wasn’t available to Christie. But Sarlo persisted that a vast majority of districts are still short.

“Sitting in a district as a superintendent today, they are still 90 percent of where they were in 2009-2010,” the senator said.

He and others also questioned the arcane changes the administration is making in the School Funding Reform Act, the funding formula enacted by former Gov. Jon Corzine and still being followed under Christie’s new budget

With Cerf the architect of the changes, Christie seeks to slightly reduce some of the funding in the formula for specifically schools with the highest needs students. One change would alter how school districts count students for funding purposes, a move that some said will also disproportionately hit high-need districts where enrollment is unstable.

Cerf defended the changes as mostly minor, but was also adamant that additional funding for some of the state’s most troubled districts is no longer the answer. He cited Camden schools, which spend more than $50 million above what the formula deems as adequate but still has many of the lowest performing schools in the state.

Instead of the money, Cerf said, “have we done everything in our power to ensure a qualified teacher in the classroom? I seriously doubt that.”

At another point, he was disdainful of providing additional aid to districts that continue to lag. “I am pretty sure if we sent more money to certain districts, we wouldn’t get any different results,” Cerf said.

The questioning came from Republicans, too, some whose constituents have seen steep declines in their state aid. Some of the toughest hit have been in Sussex and Warren counties, where dropping enrollments have cost the schools millions in state aid under Christie’s plan. Cost of living adjustments in those districts also have reduced their aid, infuriating state Sen. Steven Oroho (R-Sussex) who saw 14 of 25 districts see aid cuts.

“That is one part of the formula that is significantly unfair, particularly in rural areas,” he said.

The questions ranged the gamut beyond the budget, some of them on charter schools and the administration’s delicate dance between promoting them and monitoring them.

One piece of news was Cerf’s stated indecision about online charter schools. The state is seriously lagging in providing online education, but Cerf conceded the laws and regulations have yet to catch up.

Two virtual charter schools – one in Newark, the other in Monmouth County – have received preliminarily approval but not their final charters for next year.

“I am in the process of evaluating the laws and regulations,” Cerf said. “I cannot say that definitively they will open. They propose a number of interesting questions.”

Some of the livelier questioning was about outside consultants and other staffing of the department under Cerf, a point of controversy since he took the job more than a year ago. Cerf, a former deputy chancellor of New York City schools, has past ties with private foundations and for-profit education companies that continually are brought up by his critics.

For Democrats yesterday, it was a combination of things. For one, the department has several current and former employees connected with the Eli Broad Foundation in California, a pro-reform organization that has come under fire from teachers unions and other public school advocates.

Cerf himself is a former Broad Fellow and said he has a handful of senior staff also from the Broad, some being paid in part by the foundation. Yesterday, the commissioner found himself defending the foundation, calling Broad a “lovely and generous man” and saying there have been no conditions to the funding.

But Democrats questioned how the employees were being hired and funded, saying there are a number of outside consultants and per diem employees in the department holding critical jobs.

In documents provided to the OLS in its budget review, the department disclosed consultants on the Cerf’s school funding proposal made as much as $1,000 or even $2,500 a day.

“That’s certainly an interesting amount,” said state Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) of the latter figure. “Imagine if that went a full year, that would break all records.”

One assistant commissioner, Penny MacCormack, was hired last fall for three months at $1,000 a day until she could be confirmed by the state Board of Education as a permanent hire in January. She is now earning a salary of $135,000 a year, officials said.

Cerf defended the extra pay, saying MacCormack was a critical hire and the consultants on the funding report – including some notable national names in the school funding debates – were invaluable.

“This level of talent and expertise comes with a price tag,” he said.

Nonetheless, Sarlo asked Cerf for a full list of the per diem and consultants hired. The chairman said afterward it remained a curious stretch for an administration quick to criticize the pay of teachers and other school employees, including caps on superintendents, that is well below what it is paying consultants.

“A little hypocritical, isn’t it?” Sarlo said in an interview.

Still, after a long day of questioning and more than a dozen departments still to come, Sarlo in the next sentence conceded that despite the prodding, he did not expect big changes in the administration’s education budget, be it the billions in local aid to districts or the smaller sums for consultants.

“In the final budget, I don’t see the education piece changing too much,” he said.

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