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Fine Print: OLS Releases Analysis of Christie School Budget

Annual budget report details questions about state aid, more

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What it is: The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services yesterday released its separate budget analysis of the state Department of Education’s spending proposal for fiscal 2018. The release of the report coincides with the department’s appearance before the state Assembly’s budget committee.

What it means: The OLS analysis — conducted for every state department and released as each comes before the Legislature — is closely watched, especially for the education budget, which makes up a third of the state’s overall spending plan for the year. The analysis comes in two parts: one detailing major spending or language changes in the governor’s budget, the other posing specific “discussion points” and questions to the department related to legislators’ areas of interest.

The summary highlights: The summary report validates the well-known storyline of this budget, that Gov. Chris Christie is again essentially level-funding state aid to school districts. By the OLS’s math, the increase overall is 0.04 percent, a scant $3.2 million in an aid package of more than $8 billion. Big accounts like special education and preschool are virtually unchanged, while some Christie favorites like charter schools are seeing an $8.8 million increase.

The “discussion points”: The OLS takes aims at several specific topics in state spending, although it doesn’t always get full answers. Among them are how much the state is paying for school transportation in Lakewood, an ever-controversial district; the funds to nonpublic schools statewide for security purposes; and the resources spent on deciding teacher tenure cases under the 2012 tenure-reform law.

Ask the governor: The OLS takes on one of the hottest points of contention in pressing the department over Christie’s threat to reach a compromise with the Legislature over school funding — or else. In his budget message, Christie set a 100-day deadline and said he would make unilateral decisions if an agreement isn’t met. The OLS asks the department what authority the governor has to make such unilateral decisions. The department’s repeated response wasn’t much of one: “Questions about the governor’s speech should be directed at the governor’s office.”

A year lapsed for special education: In its budget analysis last year, the OLS asked about the costs in implementing a new state law that would create a special education ombudsman in the department. This year, it asked if such an office has been created, and indeed, the department said it will likely be in the next fiscal year.

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