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Governor’s Plan Offers Barely More Aid to Schools – But It Could Be Worse

Education advocates say 1 percent increase is inadequate but at least better than cuts they feared

NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer
NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer

When Gov. Chris Christie unveiled his proposed fiscal 2017 budget yesterday, it was a familiar scenario for New Jersey’s public schools -- with maybe a few twists.

The bottom line is that most schools would see virtually no change in their state aid under Christie’s plan, continuing the pattern of the last six years.

While the governor trumpeted aid increases for every district, the overall state aid to schools would increase all of 1 percent – or about $94.3 million in a $9.1 billion allocation.

School leaders and advocates agreed yesterday that it was far better than an aid cut for districts that feared possible reductions as the state grapples with a host of fiscal challenges.

But with the precise district-by-district numbers slated to come out Thursday, the reality remains that a vast majority are still likely to see less state aid than they did when Christie first took office.

“More money is better than flat,” said Judith Rattner, superintendent of Berkeley Heights schools, who attended the governor’s address yesterday as the state’s Superintendent of the Year.

“But the reality is when you look at the cost increases, it still puts you where you are trying to do more with less,” she said. “I’m still less than half of what I got in state aid seven years ago.”

Following Christie’s lead, state officials put their best face on the increase but acknowledged there were a number of pressures on the state.

“We’re trying to be responsible with our priorities,” said Acting Treasurer Ford Scudder, when asked about the nominal increase in a press briefing with reporters.

At the same time, the administration is also expected this week to release its long-awaited report – the Education Adequacy Report -- on how well the state’s funding formula is meeting school needs. Education advocates expect the report will result in the first adjustments in years to the school-aid formula, determining how aid is distributed.

For a few districts, there may be some additional relief this year. The budget includes a couple of new line items, including a $25 million fund for districts being hit especially hard by the growth of charter schools and an additional $32 million for districts facing steep drops in taxable properties.

State officials weren’t providing much more detail yesterday, but the two funds appear aimed mostly at Newark and Atlantic City, respectively.

The state-operated Newark district is facing a $36 million deficit next year due in part to the rapid growth of charter schools it must fund. Earlier this month, state-appointed Superintendent Chris Cerf and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka sent a joint letter to Christie imploring the state to provide some relief.

Meanwhile, Atlantic City’s fiscal crisis is even more desperate, with the closing of casinos and the loss of tax revenues they provided for the city and its schools.

Reaction to Christie’s budget plan was varied, ranging from those who complained the Christie administration was still shortchanging districts to others who expressed relief that the spending plan called for some increase.

The New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, repeated its opposition to the governor’s position on pension funding for its members. But it also cited what it called continued underfunding of districts under the state’s own school-finance law.

“School aid once again falls more than $1 billion short of what the state’s funding formula requires, for a total of more than $8 billion during his administration,” said Wendell Steinhauer, the NJEA president.

Others were more diplomatic, or at least circumspect, while awaiting Thursday’s release of the aid numbers for individual districts. They said the additional funds for districts, albeit small, along with small increases for special education and other programs, were a move in the right direction after what has been mostly stagnant for the last decade.

“We were happy to see an investment in the future of our state by increased aid to every New Jersey school district, additional funding for students with disabilities and a concrete investment in strong instructional practice through professional learning communities,” said a statement from the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

Other highlights include:

  • No change in preschool aid, at $655 million for 2017.

  • A slight increase in aid for interdistrict school choice, from $52.5 million to $53.7 million.

  • An increase of $5 million in aid to districts facing extraordinary special-education costs, from $165 million to $170 million.

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