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Sweeney to Bypass Christie to Set Up School-Funding Commission

Senate president hopes to work with Republicans in the Legislature to create a bipartisan commission by resolution

sweeney
Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester), president of the state Senate

Ever since Senate President Steve Sweeney first proposed his legislative bill for fixing New Jersey’s school funding morass, there was the obvious question as to whether Gov. Chris Christie would ever sign it if it passed.

After all, Christie has his own radically different proposal that he has been championing around the state.

Now, it may not matter.

Sweeney said Friday that he will go around Christie and propose to the Senate and Assembly a legislative resolution -- one that does not require the governor’s approval -- to create a new funding commission to devise fixes to the funding system.

He said the prospects of Christie getting on board with his proposal were slim, so taking the resolution route instead of a bill was the best way to move his proposal forward.

“We’re going to get the governor out of it,” Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said in an interview with NJ Spotlight. “With the formula he is pushing, his mind is not in the right place to be objective about this.”

How this will play out is still hardly certain, but Sweeney’s move adds another twist to what has been an interesting political tug of war so far around school funding.

Last spring, Sweeney along with state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) proposed the creation of a commission to hold hearings and come up with recommendations for bringing more equity to the existing school funding formula.

The focus was on addressing what have been wide disparities in districts meeting the law, with some vastly underfunded and others over. The commission would come up with recommendations, and the Legislature would then vote them up or down.

But within the month, Christie came out with his “Fairness Formula” that would blow up the existing funding formula altogether, instead proposing that the state ignore the intricacies of the current system and fund every district the same amount: $6,599 per student.

The implications would be broad, with dozens of high-poverty districts seeing severe cuts in funding under Christie’s plan, while other better-off districts would get significant increases.

Nonetheless, that plan didn’t appear headed anywhere either, with the Democratic-controlled Legislature making no move to even consider it.

That stalemate brings this week’s planned move by Sweeney with the legislative resolutions, a common tool for legislators to take a stand on an issue or make a collective statement, but rarely used for such a substantive measure.

“The governor has come out with a plan that wasn’t even realistically feasible,” Sweeney said Friday. “This I think will give us a better shot at working with the Republicans.”

Sweeney’s latest proposal differs little from the bill he first proposed. Instead of a four-member commission, he would add two more members: one from the labor unions and one from a school association. The first four members would be appointed by the Democratic and Republican leaders from each house.

There is no certainty that even the resolutions will pass. Sweeney appeared confident for the Senate, but the Assembly’s leadership under Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) has been largely mum so far in the debate.

But Sweeney said he was optimistic, following what has been a series of public meetings among civic and education leaders that have been supportive of his plan.

“I’m working it here in the Senate, and then I’ll work it there (in the Assembly),” Sweeney said. “I think we have done a lot of due diligence here.”

And he said his initial timetable remained the same, with the commission tasked with coming back with recommendations by next June.

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