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Senate Committee ‘Green Lights’ Sweeney’s School-Funding Plan

A first step in what Senate president hopes is an end run around Christie

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester)

A plan that would circumvent Gov. Chris Christie on future school-aid funding cleared its first hurdle Monday, after the state Senate Education Committee approved a resolution by Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to create a six-member commission to revise the state education aid formula.

This is the second idea for a commission introduced by Sweeney, and this one bypasses Christie because it is a resolution, rather than full legislation.

Earlier this year, Sweeney floated a plan that called for a four-member commission made up of two appointees by the governor and one each by himself and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson). The idea was that they would have to come up with a solution unanimously before putting it to the full legislature.

Christie nixed the plan. Instead, Christie has been canvassing the state selling the idea of what he calls “fairness funding” a flat $6,599 per student for each school district. Democrats, however, don’t believe Christie’s plan has any chance to move forward. First, it treats all districts — large multiple-school districts with high schools and middle schools, as well as single-school elementary districts — the same. Second, some urban districts — such as Newark, Paterson, and Camden — will see budget cuts of about 70 percent. Third, it is unlikely to meet the approval of the state Supreme Court.

Now, Sweeney has a new plan that cuts the Governor out entirely. This new commission would be made up of six members — Sweeney and Prieto would each get an appointment, as would the NJEA and an education association such as the School Boards Association. Ironically, the New Jersey Education Association opposes the plan.

Each Republican minority leader would also get one appointee. As with the other commission, this one would be asked to come up with a new formula unanimously. The assumptions they would be working on would be an additional $100 million a year in funding over five years, and they would have to consider population growth, tax abatements and property tax levels.

The resolution, SCR-119, has been dubbed the School Aid Funding Fairness Commission. It passed the Senate Education committee 3-0 with Sens. Ron Dancer (R-Ocean), Shirley Turner (D-Hunterdon and Mercer), and Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the co-sponsor, voting it through. Now it moves to the Assembly.

“We know that we need a plan to restore fairness and equity to New Jersey’s school-aid formula with a plan to ramp up school funding to bring districts closer to full funding each year,” said Sweeney, who testified at the committee meeting. “We should not be short-changing our children, and we should not leave in place a school-aid formula that has the property taxpayers of some towns subsidizing the property taxes of others.”

On the one hand, Sweeney’s bill is the latest effort by legislators to address a problem that has long-dogged the state: finding funding and then reaching fully funding, New Jersey’s School Finance Reform Act. Passed back in 2008 under then-Governor John Corzine, that law is the main method by which the state allocates aid to its public school districts, but critics argue that it’s rarely, if ever, followed completely.

Some 80 percent of school districts see less than what the formula, based on factors like student enrollment and demographics, calls for, while other see more, leading to a vastly unequal education landscape across the state, experts say. Under Gov. Chris Christie, the state has regularly shorted K-12 schools by up to $1 billion a year.

Lawmakers behind the bill hope that changes brought by the commission, plus $500 million in additional funding over the five-year period, would allow the state to give every school district 100 percent of what it's owed.

“The issue here is that we have had historical knowledge as to what occurred when the formula was first established,” said Ruiz, who chaired yesterday’s committee meeting. “And as it started going through conversations and compromise, it started becoming more subjective and less objective, creating the issues we’re currently facing. I think the intent of this bill is to do precisely just that: eliminate the desire of people wanting to protect their geographic districts, focus on fairness and objectivity as best we can, and then put it up to a vote.”

On the other hand, it’s also the latest opportunity for Sweeney, a prospective gubernatorial candidate, to champion another tough issue as he gears up for what many observers see as an inevitable 2017 run. Movement on a plan to replenish an ailing Transportation Trust Fund or legislation to further reform a beleaguered pension system, two other trademark priorities for Sweeney, have ground almost to a halt, for example.

Success on correcting the state’s long-debated school funding formula would help give the former ironworker something to boast about on the campaign trail, not to mention more sharply differentiate himself from the man in the front office, who’d he’d be replacing.

“We announced this plan, and then Gov. Christie announced a formula that would defund, that would basically pit communities against each other,” Sweeney told reporters following the hearing. “We don’t want to pit communities against each other. We want to be fair.”

Sweeney wants to get this done immediately, but — as with the TTF and pension issues — he’s again having trouble winning over a major education player in the state, the NJEA.

The state’s largest teachers’ union was alone in testifying against the legislation yesterday, arguing there are too many “unknowns” that come with it.

“If this law had been followed, we would not be talking about adjustment aid, which is only a symptom of the disease we should be focusing on the failure to run and fully fund the formula for over six years,” Osomo Thomas, a government relations staffer with the union, said of the 2008 reform act.

Thomas said that, among concerns about where the additional aid would come from and how the bill would address charter schools’ effect on funding. Further, putting together an outside commission would “bypass critical steps of our legislative process.”

“The work of committees is the most important part of the legislative process. Nine billion dollars was allocated for school support this year, roughly 30 percent of our annual budget,” he said. We believe that allowing six individuals to determine how 30 percent of the state budget be allocated, while bypassing four committees in the legislature ... remains a serious concern.”

Sweeney, a one-time ally of the powerful union, has also lately sparred with the NJEA over efforts to fix a broken pension and benefits fund. NJEA leaders want Sweeney to post a proposed amendment that would require the state to make full payments to the system in the Senate, but the Democrat has opted to wait until lawmakers come around on their impasse over the TTF.

“Every single education group supports this," Sweeney said yesterday, rattling off a list of organizations that included the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association and New Jersey Association of Schools, representatives for both of which testified in favor of the measure on Monday. "For an organization that is so in tune, that worked so hard on Governor Corzine's formula, to oppose something that's attempting to get us back to where it is, to run the formula … I’m disappointed."

Sweeney said he plans on posting the bill for a vote in the Senate on Thursday, where he expects it to pass. An identical version of the measure, sponsored by Assemblywoman Joann Downey and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling (D-Ocean), has been introduced in the state’s lower house.

Sweeney said it can’t move fast enough.

“We need to move now,” he said. “We can’t wait for a whole new administration, a whole new legislature, because as you can see, this is not an easy process.”

Chase Brush is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and NJ Spotlight editorial intern from North Jersey.

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