When New Jersey’s budget season began last winter, Republican and Democratic leaders starkly differed in how they wanted the state to address the gaps in its funding of public schools.
Today as the politicians come back to Trenton to try to reach a final budget and avert a state shutdown, school funding may be the one detail on which all — or at least most — of the parties agree.
But that is hardly certain, and still depends on Gov. Chris Christie signing the budget without giving his veto pen a workout.
The stakes are significant and the timing is tight; the July 4th weekend is technically the start of the 2018 fiscal year for the state and the districts.
After days of apparently successful closed-door talks with Christie, the Democrats yesterday released new aid figures for each of the nearly 600 districts, amounting to a net increase of $131 million in direct aid to schools.
It was a slight drop from the Democrats’ initial budget that would have increased aid by $146 million over Christie’s initial $9.1 billion proposal for schools in February. But it still held on to the Democrats’ main aims of boosting aid to underfunded districts and weaning it from those exceeding full funding.
Compared to their initial plan, the latest Democrats’ numbers reduce the previous increases to more than 400 districts by 10 percent, and cap any cuts that were in line for more than 130 districts to no more than 2 percent of their total aid.
(to see how your district will do under the new numbers.)
That meant some of the biggest increases to districts as divergent as Newark and Chesterfield will be a bit smaller than the Democrats initially proposed. The reductions that could have hit hardest in places like Jersey City and Toms River will be tempered as well, to no more than 2 percent of overall aid.
In addition, the Democratic budget — again with Christie’s apparent approval —also kept in an additional $25 million for preschool expansion for low-income students, opening the way for roughly 2,000 three- and four-year-olds to receive the full-day programs next year.
And it also tossed in an another $25 million for school districts with particularly high special-education costs for individual students, where expenses can run $50,000 a year or more.
The state’s so-called “extraordinary special education” aid now amounts to more than $170 million a year, and reimburses districts for a portion of costs exceeding certain set thresholds. That portion would rise from 56 percent of the extra costs to 64 percent, officials said.
But that could all soon change.
Christie yesterday said he had all but agreed to the budget plan for schools following meetings with state Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto over the course of the past week. Sweeney, too, indicated that the school package was now complete, and there would be no further negotiating.
“We’re done with that,” the Senate president said. “No more talking on that.”
But then came the standoff over Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the measure that would determine how New Jersey would regulate the state’s largest health insurer, and all bets are off about what will survive.
Christie yesterday said if he didn’t win approval of the Sweeney-backed bill for regulating Horizon, as well as a second one shifting state lottery money to fulfill pension needs, he could easily bring out his veto pen on any or all of the Democrats’ initiatives, specifically including school funding and preschool. Prieto has refused to post the Horizon bill, bringing the talks to a standstill.
“There are dozens of items in there that I have line item vetoed over the course of time,” Christie said yesterday. “And if left to my own devices, I will do it again.”
“Let there be no doubt that if the budget comes to me without the (Horizon bill and the lottery bill),” Christie said, “I will use all the constitutional authority that I have to be much more like the budget I submitted in February.”