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In Union County, a Surprising Response to Sweeney’s School-Funding Plan

Mayors and superintendents talk ‘accountability,’ one of the hot-buttons of Christie’s competing school-funding scheme

Mountainside Mayor Paul Mirabelli

For state Senate President Steve Sweeney, Union County should have provided a receptive audience for his pitch to revise New Jersey’s school- funding formula.

After all, Gov. Chris Christie’s controversial proposal to overhaul how the state funds its schools would cut back funding to the state’s largest -- and poorest -- districts.

But virtually every one of Union County’s districts -- urban and suburban -- would benefit from Sweeney’s promise to fully fund the existing formula within five years.

“Union County is a great example,” he said in the forum held at Union County College.

But then the unexpected happened. While all of the dozen or so mayors and superintendents on hand welcomed more resources for their schools, they also raised new -- and tough -- questions.

For a few mayors, Christie’s plan, which would essentially provide all districts the same funding per pupil was hardly the anathema that Sweeney portrayed.

Linden Mayor Derek Armstead said Christie’s promise of a tax cut was appealing, as was his argument that court-ordered funding to urban districts had not done enough to improve their schools.

“The governor’s proposal would give every resident $800 in property tax relief,” Armstead said. “In Linden, the residents are ecstatic when they hear that.”

He and others raised what has been Christie’s clarion call: Spending in too many districts -- especially large urban districts -- has run amok.

“We really need to get back to accountability, “ Armstead said, “and ways to control their spending.”

It was a civil discussion, and at Sweeney’s urging, it tried not to pit urban versus suburban districts, something that Christie’s plan has been accused of.

But it also pointed up the complexity of the issue and the appeal of both sides: Sweeney’s call for full funding as well as Christie’s push for greater accountability, along with a property-tax reduction.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Sweeney said he is still trying to build “momentum” in the Legislature for his proposal, which would create a commission to recommend revisions to the formula that would at least put every district on the same footing. There is no immediate plans for a vote.

“We have this plan, and we have another plan,” Sweeney said, alluding to the governor’s proposal. “We think this plan is fair to everyone, but that’s why we are going around.”

Christie’s proposal to call for a constitutional amendment to level school aid appears to be a nonstarter in the Democratic legislature, but that has hardly stopped him from launching a public campaign that has already included a half-dozen stops. The next is in Bergen County on Tuesday.

And no doubt aware of Sweeney’s push, Christie’s office yesterday released a second series of testimonials that it said praised the plan, mostly coming from mayors.

At Sweeney’s event, that appeal did not fall on deaf ears. Mayor Colleen Mahr of Fanwood said the rising property taxes were brutal on her residents. “We are driving seniors and those without children out,” she said. “Why would they stay?”

She applauded Sweeney’s proposal for trying to alleviate the burden, but also brought some skepticism to the latest promises. “”What is going to be different this time?” she said.

Others were more probing. The mayor of Mountainside, Paul Mirabelli, said there is an impression among some smaller suburban districts like his own is that the larger districts are not accountable enough to how they spend their money.

He pointed to athletic programs that include “tour buses” to transport students and lavish facilities to house them. ”That’s the perception, right or wrong, but that’s the perception,” Mirabelli said.

Sweeney acknowledged that there were still questions, but hoped for further conversations. “The goal is not to hurt any district, but to right the ship,” he said.

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