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Deal Answers School Funding Questions – For Now

Late compromises mean no districts will lose state aid in ‘election year’ budget

After Governor Chris Christie proposed his fiscal 2014 budget this spring, NJ Spotlight asked five questions about what the ensuing deliberations would bring for New Jersey public schools.

With the Legislature’s Democratic leadership yesterday introducing a budget that it had negotiated with the Christie administration, many of those questions have been answered.

How good -- or bad -- is the budget for schools?

In the end, no school district will see less money than it did this year – not exactly a win, but not quite as bad as it could have been.

Christie had advertised, in presenting his budget, that two-thirds of the state’s school districts would see state funding increases and no district would see a cut in aid. But that wasn’t exactly the case.

Due to a 60 percent increase in assessments to districts for school construction grants they received from the state, 270 districts were facing overall reductions in the amount of money received from the state.

As part of the negotiations between the Christie administration and the Democrats, however, $7.4 million was reduced from that so-called “claw-back” to districts, and now no district will see an overall reduction.

“That was a top priority of mine,” state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the Senate budget committee chairman, said yesterday. “That gets 270 districts back to zero.”

It wasn’t as much as districts hoped, but it took the sting out of the budget for many communities – and gave Christie back at least one election-year talking point.

“We at least made the governor be at his word that nobody was taking a cut,” said state Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), the Assembly’s budget chief.

Will 41 districts really end up with exactly one dollar more?

Christie made a big point of saying that two-thirds of all districts would see increased state aid this year, but notwithstanding the school construction assessments, A total of 41 of those districts were to get just a single dollar more.

That tiny amount led to some creative protests in a couple of New Jersey towns, including Hawthorne in Passaic County last month, but in the end, not much – if at all – appeared to change in the final allotment of formula aid.

“As usual at this point, everything is moving at 90 miles an hour,” said Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the state’s school boards association. “Not saying we are dissatisfied, but the process is difficult to decipher.”

Whatever the final numbers, Vrancik said it was not a surprising budget for a year in which both the governor and the full Legislature will be on the ballot in November.

“It’s not really a clear victory for anyone,” he said. “It’s fair to say it was an election year budget.”

Did the administration defy the Legislature on at-risk aid -- again?

The Democratic-led Legislature has fought with the administration for two years over its quest to tweak the School Funding Reform Act with changes in the formula as it affects students with special needs and disabilities.

Last year and again in this budget, the administration reduced the amount of extra aid for at-risk students to bring it more in line with other states – or so it claimed.

Last year, the Democrats removed the budget language but left the final aid numbers in place, a largely inconsequential act. A year later, the Democrats did so again in the fiscal 2014 budget, signaling its protest of the changes by removing the legal language but leaving the actual money intact.

“The dollars don’t change, but we are not accepting the language,” Sarlo said.

Will this budget bring the first school vouchers to New Jersey?

An emphatic “NO.”

The consensus budget does not include $2 million that had been proposed for a pilot school-voucher program, which would have offered 200 low-income students $10,000 each to attend a school of their choice, public or private.

The proposal would have been the last notch in Christie’s school-reform agenda as he leads his reelection campaign, but Democrats contended from the beginning that it was untenable, especially as part of a budget.

“That was a nonstarter for us,” said Sarlo.

Even some who said they might have supported for the proposal said Christie may have made a mistake in making the pilot too limiting.

“Two hundred kids was just too small a sampling,” said Prieto. “And the guidelines of what kids they would be were problematic for me.”

What’s not in the budget – and what’s now in the budget?

The consensus budget did bring a couple of small adjustments for schools, both adding money and subtracting it.

Of the latter, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s proposal for a $5 million Innovation Fund to provide individual grants to districts was ultimately taken out altogether.

Cerf had maintained the grants would help foster new approaches in school districts, especially in the use of technology, but Democratic leaders said there were too many questions about how the money would be spent.

“I’m thinking if we had a little more time, we could have worked out language on that,” Sarlo said.

Added Prieto: “We just didn’t know what it was going to be used for.”

But the Democrats said they were willing to add back a little money for one big initiative facing schools. Prieto said $1 million was put in the budget to help districts address the state’s new anti-bullying law, which requires specific steps and staffing to investigate and resolve bullying incidents.

Another initiative will see no such funding assistance for local districts -- teacher evaluation.

Districts are required in the next year to overhaul their teacher evaluation systems, with new standards for using student achievement and other measures in judging teachers, and schools had hoped for funds to help pay for the needed staff and training. Prieto said yesterday there would no such funding this year.

Is there really all that much money available to make significant changes?

In the end, it’s a pretty much a status quo budget for schools.

Nobody will be too thrilled with aid still below full funding as spelled out in the state’s school-finance laws, and while there’s a 1 percent increase in overall state aid, that’s still way below the increases in costs for districts.

That likely means pain for some districts, and funding debates will hardly end with the Legislature’s expected final passage on Monday -- but at least for now, this round of those debates has been concluded.

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