Administration Argues That Federal Stimulus Has Helped Offset School Aid Cuts

John Mooney | February 22, 2011 | Education
At Abbott v. Burke hearing, debate over last state budget may portend issues in next one

Gov. Chris Christie makes his case today for how he will fund New Jersey’s public schools. Yesterday, the administration’s lawyers made their case that last year’s cuts were not as deep as decried. Indeed, they argued that budgets in urban districts could still be cut further.

The setting was a near-empty courtroom in Hackensack, where fact-finding hearings continued — even on a holiday Monday — in the ongoing Abbott v. Burke school equity challenge that is before the state Supreme Court.

The administration has been challenged over its and the legislature’s $1 billion in state aid cuts to schools in 2010, which have led to thousands in layoffs and millions in program cuts this school year.

And in a timely argument to the governor’s budget address today, the state’s lawyers laid out that the aid cuts, while painful, did not leave schools as decimated as claimed and that there was even room for further adjustments.

Christie has hinted that he would make some of those adjustments in this coming budget, openly saying that he wants to shift at least some of the preponderance of state aid going to urban districts to suburban ones.

State Deputy Attorney General Shannon Ryan yesterday presented through her final witness a variety of charts and statistics that helped build that argument.

For instance, one showed that many of the state’s neediest districts not only withstood the cuts this year, but even offset them through an infusion of federal aid and other sources.

Overall, the 31 so-called Abbott districts saw a 4 percent increase when factoring in federal stimulus money, other federal aid, and the use of their own fund balances, testified Kevin Dehmer, a data analyst with the state education department.

Still, Dehmer also testified to the depth of the state funding hole left by Christie’s and the legislature’s cuts. He presented a district-by-district breakdown of what would have happened if the state’s funding formula had been fully paid for. According to his analysis, that would have led to a $600 million increase in aid, instead of the $1 billion cut.

“So the reduction from the required level of funding was $1.6 billion, is that accurate?” pressed David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center (ELC), the Newark advocacy group leading the challenge.

The federal funds are a central piece of the state’s case that Sciarra and the ELC will seek to counter in their coming arguments. A particular issue is $263 million in so-called that New Jersey districts received last fall to help hire back lost staff and other personnel.

Since the money came in late, many districts banked it for this coming budget, a move encouraged at the time by the state’s acting commissioner, Rochelle Hendricks. But some superintendents and school board leaders have raised worries that the extra money will now be used against them to make up for further state aid cuts next year.

With the state closing its case yesterday, next up is the Education Law Center’s witnesses, starting on Wednesday with Superintendent Walter Whitaker of the Buena Regional schools in Atlantic County.

Sciarra said he expected his case would not take more than a three or four days. State Superior Court Judge Peter Doyne, who is presiding over the hearings, said closing arguments could come as soon as early next week, after which he will issue a report to the state Supreme Court.