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Despite Budget Drama and Deadlock, School Funding Changes Survive

Budget as signed represents first move in almost a decade to follow the state’s school-funding formula

sweeney
Senate President Stephen Sweeney

While beach photos of Gov. Chris Christie and debates over Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield may have gotten most of the attention, the agreement to end New Jersey’s three-day government shutdown resulted in some very significant news for one of the state’s stickiest challenges: school funding.

Central to the budget agreement reached by Christie and Democratic leaders in the state Senate and Assembly late Monday night was an additional $181 million in school funding and, just as important, the first meaningful move in nearly a decade to follow the state’s school funding law.

The additional money is a small fraction of the estimated $2 billion gap between what the state’s school districts receive and what the law calls for. And for further perspective, state aid to districts tops $9 billion overall — close to a third of the total state budget.

But it nonetheless was the first time since Christie took office that the formula was effectively run to determine the increases — as well as decreases — in state aid to districts.

Losing money in 11th hour

That won’t make everyone happy, since more than 100 districts stand to lose money in the 11th-hour deal. With the school year two months away, there will surely be some paring of budgets in places like Jersey City and East Orange, the two biggest losers at $8.4 million and $3.1 million, respectively.

Even while applauding the overall deal, the cuts left some with a bitter taste, including leaders of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers union.

“We’re extremely disappointed by that part,” said Steve Baker, the NJEA’s communications director. “We were and remain deeply opposed to taking money away from students … It’s one of the really bad parts of the compromise.”

But the budget also brought sizable gains for more than 300 districts that had been grossly underfunded under previous state budgets, potentially opening the way for additional hires and programs going into the fall.

The amounts aren’t inconsequential. The biggest winners are Newark and Elizabeth, each seeing $5.1 million more. The beleaguered Atlantic City schools will get an additional $4.2 million, and Woodbridge schools another $3.9 million.

(Follow this link to see how your district will do.)

Following the funding formula

Even if incremental, the move to finally follow the 2008 finance law — known as the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) — was a priority for state Senate President Steve Sweeney going into the budget deliberations, and he stuck to it throughout.

In the face of a potential veto of the changes by Christie, Sweeney tried to broker a deal on the Horizon oversight that Christie preferred. And even as that deal gave way, leading to the shutdown, Sweeney insisted that he would not bend on the school changes.

“We’re done talking about that,” he said on the eve of the shutdown.

Nonetheless, some compromises were made along the way to make the deal work, especially with state Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, who initially resisted Sweeney’s school-funding plan due to its planned cuts.

In the end, the cuts to districts — including several in Prieto’s home Hudson County — were minimized to no more than 2 percent of overall state aid, and increases were trimmed back by 10 percent.

At the same time, Sweeney was able to add additional money for expanded preschool and for special education aid, two other favorites that Prieto had pressed as well. Each received an additional $25 million, again a drop in the bucket but each the first such increases in Christie’s seven years.

Smaller sums were also added for a variety of other programs: $23.8 million in non-public school aid for security, nursing services, and other programs; $4 million for adult education in the state’s county vo-tech schools; and $3 million for vo-tech partnership grants.

And in the end, Christie went along with all of it, including programs he had previously vetoed from budgets. Since he came into office, Christie had sought to scale back funding to New Jersey’s neediest urban districts under the state’s landmark Abbott v. Burke school equity ruling, and instead settled on a $15.5 million net increase in his last budget.

He did get the final say on a couple of items, though, pulling out his veto pen on some of the budget language that went along with them.

Most notably, Christie vetoed much of the language connected to the preschool money that would have steered the expansion to exclusively low-income students, its avowed purpose. In the Democrats’ budget, the money would be steered to nearly 20 districts with high concentrations of low-income children.

Instead, Christie vetoed that clause and said the target of the expansion would be left to the determination of the state education commissioner.

Preschool advocates who had been pressing for the expansion money were withholding judgment yesterday about the meaning of the language change until they could review it further.

And at least one said the new programs would likely not be ready in time for the coming fall anyway. At the end of what was an anxious and drama-filled weekend, he focused on the positive instead.

“There is time to work this out,” said Samuel Crane, the former state treasurer who is leading a business-led group Pre-K Our Way. “We are just pleased and thankful to the leaders in both houses who supported this.”

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