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Murphy School Aid Plan Keeps Promises, Raises Questions

The numbers aren’t set in stone, but districts have gotten a first look at state aid to public schools

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Following up on the broad concepts laid out in his first budget address, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration yesterday released what are perhaps the most critical details to local communities: his proposed state aid to public school districts.

And keeping his promise that virtually all districts would get at least some increase next year, there was palpable relief in many communities and a bit of head-scratching in others.

Follow this link to see your district’s proposed aid numbers.

The increases were not insignificant in many communities, especially for the state’s neediest districts. Newark schools stand to gain $37 million; Paterson, an additional $20 million.

All but 30 districts will see an increase in aid, albeit some rather nominal. But the median is close to 5 percent, more than double the highest median increase under former Gov. Chris Christie — if there were any.

“It’s better than expected,” said Brian Zychowski, superintendent of North Brunswick school district, which stands to gain an additional $731,000, or a 5 percent increase. “Of course, it’s better than flat.”

Yet, coupled with the relief, there were questions about how the administration came up with the numbers. Further, there is hardly a guarantee that the state Legislature and specifically state Senate President Steve Sweeney and his allies will go along.

The state Department of Education provided three sentences to explain its methodology, saying that this year is the first installment on Murphy’s pledge to fully fund the state’s School Finance Reform Act (SFRA) formula within four years.

“The SFRA formula was run, and each district received a quarter of the increase due as the first step in phasing-in to full funding,” read the first sentence.

It went on to explain that additional funds for categories like inter-district school choice increased the aid.

Yet Murphy’s administration has yet to define exactly what it means by full funding. His department’s explanation included caps on the increases that could significantly limit exactly how full that funding will be. And the governor has even mentioned the idea of going back into the 2008 law to revise and “modernize” the formula.

Point of contention

A big point of contention is a $522-million line within the formula that is earmarked for so-called adjustment aid, a buffer written into the formula that was meant to protect districts from seeing steep cuts in their aid all at once.

Murphy in his budget has largely maintained that line, shaving it only slightly in the upcoming year. Meanwhile, without much explanation, he has boosted aid in other categories as well, including another $126 million for transportation and $107 million for special education.

But the tension especially comes as Sweeney has proposed a very different path in getting schools to full funding, proposing that adjustment aid be phased out over five years to free up money to districts that have been vastly underfunded.

How much of a fight this will be is yet to be seen. Since the budget was presented, Sweeney has so far stayed mum on Murphy’s budget plan, with his spokesman yesterday referring a reporter to a month-old press release that outlined the Senate President’s proposal.

Those aren’t the only questions. Murphy’s school aid plan moved around several line items as well, making comparisons with previous years difficult. For instance, specific aid under Christie for his priorities like teacher evaluation and PARCC were consolidated under Murphy into general-formula aid.

Freehold Regional High School district is among the 30 districts not seeing any increase under Murphy’s plan, leaving it with no more aid than it did a decade ago. Its superintendent said yesterday that he wasn’t exactly sure why.

“In trying to sort through the secret sauce of the state formula,” said superintendent Charles Sampson.

“It seems there is a floor and a cap, the floor being no less than last year and the cap being on what year one of a four-year phase in looks like,” he said. “We see that in words but not in numbers. If the numbers remain the same, we anticipate seeing a modest decrease over the next several years. However, our state aid still remains comparable to that of 2009 levels, which poses difficulties in an era of rising costs.”

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