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Legislature’s Resolution Prompts Demand to Fully Fund Abbott Districts

ELC warns of legal action if state doesn’t comply with court formula for aid to low-income schools

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex)

As it has done before, the Democrat-led Legislature last week quietly rejected the Christie administration’s attempt to adjust the state’s school-funding formula, even if it would not much affect the bottom-line amounts that schools receive next year.

This time, however, there could be repercussions before the state’s highest court.

The state Assembly and Senate last week passed a joint resolution that rejected the state’s proposed changes to the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), part of the so-called Education Adequacy Report that is issued every three years.

The administration tried to reduce extra funding available within the formula for disadvantaged students. . “It was really based on pure guess work and not true research,” said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee and sponsor of the resolution on the Assembly side.

Yet as the state-aid formula has been grossly underfunded for the last five years, the resolution was somewhat of a symbolic act. The administration’s proposed aid totals for schools next year – amounting to about a 1 percent average increase for districts – was not much affected by the vote.

Diegnan acknowledged as much yesterday: “I don’t see it as much changing the bottom line. But it is something we have to bring attention to.”

The Christie administration tried an identical move three years ago, when it proposed similar changes as part of its statutory mandate to adjust the formula every three years.

That mandate stems from the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke rulings that required the state to update the SFRA in the Education Adequacy Report to address changing needs and circumstances.

In that case three years ago, the Democratic-controlled Legislature also rejected the moves, but also didn’t change the bottom-line amounts.

The difference this time is that lawyers representing children in the 31 Abbott school districts – all urban and low-income, including Newark, Paterson and Jersey City – have pushing the administration to now not only adjust aid amounts statewide, but also fully fund the Abbott districts as required by the court’s ruling.

That would likely amount to close to $500 million more in the state budget, a hefty sum considering that the administration is increasing aid to districts statewide by only $94 million.

In a letter sent to the state Attorney General’s office last week, the lead attorney for the Education Law Center said the administration must at least reissue its aid amounts in the aftermath of the state Legislature’s move and provide a full accounting of what is owed each district under SFRA.

“The state’s failure to implement the SFRA consistent with firmly established constitutional parameters is plain,” read the letter from David Sciarra, executive director of the ELC.

The ELC letter said the administration must meet its obligations to the Abbott districts under the court’s edict.

“In the event the State fails to correct the SFRA’s implementation, as set forth above, plaintiffs will have no alternative but to seek appropriate judicial relief,” Sciarra wrote.

The administration has 30 days to respond to the Legislature’s action.

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