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Hespe Taken to Task Over Failure to Fully Fund School Districts

Commissioner says amount of aid reflects what state’s able to afford in tough financial times

hespe
Education Commissioner David Hespe testifying yesterday, with budget director David Joye (right).

New Jersey’s school-funding law got lots of attention yesterday as the Christie administration went before the state Senate’s budget committee – but the legislation remains basically an extinct species at this point.

Questioning started right out of the gate with the committee’s chairman, state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), as he quizzed state Education Commissioner David Hespe on what has become the new reality in school funding: little or no increase in state aid to New Jersey’s public school districts, regardless of what the law says is required.

“In fiscal 2014 and 2015 and again fiscal 2016, we are not meeting the school funding formula, is that correct?” Sarlo asked Hespe.

The commissioner acknowledged that the Christie administration was falling well short – by about $1.1 billion this year -- of what is mandated under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008. He cited the state’s financial crisis and said the amount of aid is what the state could afford.

“That formula is underfunded to make ends meet,” Hespe said.

The commissioner tried to put the best face on it, saying that the administration has increased its share to districts and is hitting a record high amount in overall state aid to schools – at least when pension contributions and school-building funding are included.

“My favorite number is what is percentage of the budget that goes to support education in New Jersey, and that has increased from 33 percent at the beginning of this administration to 38 percent now,” Hespe said. “That is the number I’d like to focus on.”

That hardly allayed concerns from both sides of the political aisle, as Sarlo and other Democrats stressed the impact of the administration’s decisions, and Republicans, too, questioned how and why their own school districts were being hurt.

State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) cited said scores of districts are falling short of the state’s own calculations under SFRA of what is deemed to be “adequacy” to meet educational needs. The hardest-hit were those with big enrollment gains, she said, but without seeing the state support needed to sustain them.

“We have gone from 130 districts that are 10 percent below the adequacy standard to 173 districts,” she said. “They cross all of our legislative districts, and it is not tenable. Some of them are barely hanging on.”

Beck said the funding formula has grown virtually defunct, and the Legislature will likely at some point need to craft a new one.

“While we debate and figure out what we will do with the funding formula – clearly it’s not working and we’re not using it,” she said. “While we dicker, some of these districts are teaching kids in the hallways or on stages, 37 kids in the classroom.”

Hespe stood firm and said that if the state ran the funding formula with existing resources, as many as 350 districts could have seen decreases next year. But he agreed that the districts are dealing with financial strains.

“It’s matter of what’s possible and what’s viable in these financial times,” he said. “But clearly it’s unsustainable. Districts can’t stay in this position for a long period of time.”

By the administration’s own calculations, if the state did meet its full-funding obligations as set under SFRA, just two dozen districts would be seeing decreases, and in fact, more than 400 would see double-digit increases in aid.

The biggest winners would be the state’s largest districts, including the state-run districts of Newark and Paterson. Newark alone would see a $131 million increase, while Paterson would get $68 million more in aid.

Here is a full breakdown of how the school districts would fare under Christie administration’s fiscal 2016 budget compared to what they’re entitled under SFRA, according to the administration.

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