Unlikely Ally Supports ELC in Abbott Challenge

Well-off Montgomery school district, facing more than $5 million in state aid cuts, files amicus brief

It’s not the usual alliance in New Jersey’s Abbott v. Burke school funding debate: a wealthy suburban district standing side-by-side in court with the group that has represented poor urban schoolchildren.

But the district of Montgomery in Somerset County has asked to file a friend of the court brief with the latest challenge by the Education Law Center in the Abbott equity case, now back before the state Supreme Court for the 21st time.

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Their request still pending before the court, Montgomery officials argue that the ELC’s legal challenge to Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature’s state aid cuts also speaks to a wealthy district like their own, which lost more than $5 million in state aid under Christie, one of dozens of suburban districts hit hard by the cuts.

“What do we have to lose at this point?” said Earl Kim, superintendent of Montgomery schools. “And as a district, we stand a lot to gain if the formula is funded, even partially.”

Montgomery is the only individual district to request to file an amicus brief in the case. A coalition of special education advocates is also filing. The court has yet to schedule arguments in the case or even formally agree to hear the motion.

The ELC, the Newark group that has led the Abbott litigation, is contending the aid cuts this summer are a violation of the court’s most recent Abbott ruling in 2009. That ruling found the current funding formula met constitutional requirements in providing equal opportunity to a “thorough and efficient” education, but only if fully funded.

The Christie administration has argued that the state’s fiscal crisis left it no choice but to make reductions in state aid, and that it did so equitably across all districts. The cuts were limited to no more than 5 percent of a given district’s overall budget. For some suburban districts, that meant virtually all of their aid. For many urban districts, it was a far smaller share.

While the Abbott case has historically focused on urban schoolchildren, the ELC’s latest argument resonated in Montgomery, Kim said.

Under the intricacies of the School Funding Reform Act, the superintendent said his district would appear a model of efficiency, spending less than deemed adequate by the state, while still showing high achievement levels.

He pointed out that Montgomery is one of the districts that state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler has invited to a closed meeting of select superintendents next week to discuss their efficiencies as basis for a potential statewide model.

“That’s why we felt so strongly,” Kim said. “We were so hurt fiscally. Literally $5.5 million taken from us in a few months’ time, and while that may not seem a lot in a $70 million budget, it’s huge cuts in programs and service.”

He said three classroom teachers and a social worker position were eliminated outright, and that support staff were reduced to part-time positions to save on health benefits.

In additional, elementary school world language was cut back, and middle school sports will be paid through user fees, officials said.

“It shows that the state’s failure to fund the formula isn’t having an impact on just poor urban districts,” said Elizabeth Athos, senior attorney with the ELC. “It will provide the court a fuller picture of what is happening statewide. Not just Abbott districts have a stake in this.”

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