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Bacon v. NJ Department of Education Court Case: Could It Be the Next ‘Abbott?’

Long-standing suit brought by 20 rural districts demanding equitable state funding comes off back burner

In the shadows of New Jersey’s landmark Abbott v. Burke school equity case, Bacon v. NJ Department of Education has always seemed like a distant cousin to that epic court ruling.

While the Abbott case, spanning 40 years, went to the core of the state’s financing of schools and ultimately became a national model, the Bacon case was brought more quietly in 1997 by 20 rural districts who contended they were under-served by the state.

But the Bacon case has seen its own successes in the courts -- and now it’s back before the state.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs filed a notice with the state last week demanding that the Christie administration comply with previous court decisions in the Bacon case that essentially require the same equitable funding for the mostly southern New Jersey rural districts as the Abbott decisions have afforded the 31 urban districts covered in that ruling.

The letter to acting state Attorney General John Hoffman cites the administration’s failure to comply with the Bacon case’s court decrees from 2008 that require funding match the School Funding Reform Act.

The 2008 rulings also required that the state give the Bacon districts necessary resources to provide preschool programs, another key legacy of Abbott.

The letter to Hoffman also cites state funding cuts in 2011 that all but erased any increased funding received under the previous remedial orders.

The Bacon districts encompass a varied array of communities, many in South Jersey, including Buena Regional, Clayton, Lakewood, Egg Harbor City and Hammonton.

Other important note in the letter: The Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group that led the Abbott litigation, is taking over the Bacon case. The districts’ long-time attorney, Frederick Jacobs, remains an attorney but attaching the ELC’s name brings stature and resources.

The letter to Hoffman was largely aimed at kicking off the legal process in reviving the case. It is unlikely the Christie administration will be boosting funding for any school districts in the near future as it faces its own revenue problems. But it is also not a simple case to defend, as at least some of the Bacon districts have fared well under the state’s fiscal-monitoring system but others have still struggled over the last decade. These include Lakewood, the latest in the state to see a state monitor named to oversee its fiscal affairs.

Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe yesterday would not comment on the case, other to say the ELC’s inquiry was under review.

“We’re reviewing the letter with the Attorney General, and we will communicate a response to the law center when that review is done,” he said.

Hespe did not put a timeframe on that response. If the state does not formally respond, the next step would be for the plaintiffs to go back to court, where the Bacon complaints have largely fared well, although it has been a lengthy process involving several levels of the judiciary and even the State Board of Education.

In the last judicial action, the state appellate court in 2008 sided with the districts in saying they are entitled to adequate state support, much like the Abbott districts. But a request for emergency relief after the first cuts in 2011 was remanded to a lower court, and has since languished.

The letter to Hoffman said the issue has not gone away.

“In 2014-15, the Bacon districts will again be deprived of the funding increases and the preschool programs required by the SFRA formula,” the letter reads. ”As a result, the constitutional violation found by the state board in 2006 and upheld by the appellate division in 2008 …. have not been remediated to date.”

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