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Sweeney, NJEA Square off in Ugly Brawl About School Funding

Never good friends, the Senate president and the state teachers union punch and counterpunch over $125 million school-aid plan

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State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester)

In an ironic twist, the fate of school funding for next year may not hinge on the usual Democratic-Republican politics, but instead on what has become a nasty feud between New Jersey’s top Democrat and its dominant teachers union.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney and the New Jersey Education Association have never been close friends, but their animus has become more apparent in the past week as Sweeney has pressed for a new school-funding plan and the union has pushed back — hard.

The sniping escalated this week, as Sweeney took the offensive to defend his plan for adding $125 million in state aid to districts for next year. That will mean a boon for some but deep cuts for others, since at least some of the funds will come from their budgets.

“We are not hurting districts,” Sweeney insisted in an interview with NJ Spotlight. ‘We’re being fair.”

Fighting back

But the NJEA has fought back, and this week maintained that any move to cut from districts is harmful to children and must be resisted. Last week, the union called the plan a “sick scheme,” and a spokesman this week said union campaigns are underway in local districts to oppose it.

“We’re opposed to any move that takes away from districts,” said Steve Baker, NJEA’s communications director. “We’ve been pretty clear about that from the beginning.”

Sweeney’s rejoinder was to ask where the union was when layoffs were announced in districts that are underfunded in the current system, and snapped at the union’s expensive campaign against him over the state’s pension crisis.

‘A bald-faced lie’

The union responded it has consistently fought for full state funding, and Sweeney’s claims otherwise are a “bald-faced lie.”

That’s the tone that has come to dominate the discourse in one of the major dramas of the state budget season. And while it’s been heard before in New Jersey’s gloves-off politics, this time out the stakes are particularly high as schools wait and wonder what the final budget will bring.

The question now is whether the NJEA can slow or stall an effort that appears to have clear momentum with the support of both Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.

“It looks like Sweeney and Prieto have a workable deal on school funding,” said Matthew Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University. “That is a big deal and means that it is likely to happen.

‘Intimidations and threats’

“However, it is important to remember [the Democrats] recently had a deal on legislative pay raises, and the back benchers revolted,” he continued. “If the NJEA manages to pull off enough of those folks with intimidation and threats, it is possible that it could happen again.”

And Hale certainly didn’t understate the union’s power, pointing to its continued fight with Sweeney on every front.

Angered by the senator’s opposition to a constitutional amendment protecting the state’s pension contributions, the union this month led an expensive media campaign against Sweeney — even launching anti-Sweeney ads in a primary election where Sweeney faced no challenger. The union has since endorsed a rare Republican, Fran Grenier, against the Senate leader in the general election.

“They seem bound and determined to oppose anything with Steve Sweeney's name on it,” Hale said.

The union doesn’t much deny it either. “That was a decision our members made,” said Baker of the endorsement. “When considering who would be the more consistent, reliable candidate, (Grenier) was the right choice.”

Yesterday brought more developments, although hardly any resolution. Gov. Chris Christie met with Sweeney and Prieto late in the day to discuss the budget, and commented at a press conference that there were still issues to resolve but he was confident an agreement would be struck.

‘Backroom’ deals

At the same time, 16 Senate Republicans released a letter decrying what they called the “backroom” deals among Democrats and called on Christie to reject them.

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State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester)

“This plan was negotiated in secret by the Democratic leadership and does nothing to fix the many problems inherent in our flawed school-funding formula,” said Senator Joe Pennacchio (R-Essex, Bergen, Passaic), vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on School Funding Fairness. “Mr. Governor, please kill this backroom deal.”

Nonetheless, the private conversations continued unabated. Before meeting with the governor, Sweeney said on Monday that he was willing to make changes if need be, but was unbending on the need to reduce aid to districts that had seen overfunding from the state.

“If the governor wants to make tweaks, I’d do them,” Sweeney said in an interview. “But the crux of the matter is some of these (aid levels) need to come down … At some point, this has to end.”

Prieto yesterday said in an interview before the meeting that he was confident there would be an agreement.

“Right now, we want to see where the governor stands,” Prieto said.

The Speaker defended his support of the latest funding plan, saying that he won close to $150 million in increased funding for nearly 400 districts, as well as an additional $25 million for expanded preschool.

Prieto had previously held out for no cuts at all to districts, winning him the support of the NJEA, but said yesterday there had to be some compromise.

“It’s not everything I want, but we had to get somewhere,” Prieto said. “And I think we minimized the cuts. . . It was about how we could do this, and we minimized the impact to a level that is manageable.”

The NJEA is hardly in agreement, but has saved its vitriol for Sweeney while actually giving Prieto a pass — at least publicly. “You’ll have to ask [Prieto] about his position,” said Baker, the NJEA communications director.

But as for Sweeney and others backing the plan, “their constituents will be watching if they go along with this,” Baker said.

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