Christie Administration Advances School-Aid Arguments

Administration argues federal funds and gifts should be used to offset Newark's school-aid cuts

With the latest Abbott v. Burke court proceedings still in limbo, the Christie administration further laid out its upcoming legal argument by saying that additional federal and even philanthropic money to the state-run Newark school district should be counted in helping offset its state-aid cuts.

The Newark schools, under state operation since 1995, had joined in this summer’s complaint against Christie administration’s $1.1 billion in school aid cuts, saying that they violated the state Supreme Court’s series of Abbott v. Burke rulings on behalf of high-need, urban schools. The district contended that its more than $40 million in cuts led to widespread layoffs of teachers and staff.

The larger complaint filed by the Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy group that has led the school equity litigation, is considered a wild card in Gov. Chris Christie’s efforts to remake school funding in the state. The court has yet to set a schedule for hearing the case.

But in the battle of legal filings, Christie’s lawyers said in a response brief this month that Newark’s attempt to seek relief as a “friend of the court” should be denied.

“In fact, Newark had one of the smallest percentages of state aid loss in fiscal 2011,” wrote senior deputy attorney general Michelle Miller in the response. “Only eight of 581 districts saw a smaller aid reduction than Newark.”

The district not only spends more than both statewide and Abbott averages, Miller wrote, but also failed to acknowledge more than $40 million in additional federal aid that “could be used to offset entirely or substantially mitigate” the state aid cuts.

And although only a footnote, the court briefing also alluded to the well-publicized $100 million gift to the Newark public schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, although that money is not earmarked toward operational funds or even necessarily the district itself.

The districts’ attorneys could not be reached for comment yesterday.