OLS Trims $52 Million from Abbott Estimate

John Mooney | June 10, 2011 | Education
The Office of Legislative Services indicates it miscalculated costs of fully funding Abbott districts

The cost for the state to comply with the Supreme Court’s latest Abbott v. Burke ruling may have just come down $50 million or so.

The Office of Legislative Services (OLS), the non-partisan staff to the legislature, sent a letter yesterday to the Senate and Assembly budget committees that revised its original estimate from just shy of $500 million in additional funding to about $447 million.

The original OLS estimate had been specifically cited by the court in its order last month as the amount that the state would have to pay in additional funding next year to the 31 Abbott districts. In the ensuing debate, $500 million has been widely used as the price tag.

But the OLS said yesterday that it had miscalculated what it would cost to fully fund the Abbott districts under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), as required by the court. The mistake was made with some of the funding provided for at-risk students.

“It appears the original simulation had an error in the part of the formula that calculated the at-risk weights for certain districts,” wrote David Rosen, chief finance officer of the OLS.

“The effect of this error was to overstate the full cost of SFRA for the former Abbott districts in FY2012 by $52 million, or 1.2 percent,” he said.

In the letter, Rosen said his office was still working with the state Department of Education in determining a final, definitive amount, and would report back to the legislature in the next week.

But the new number only adds to the uncertainty of the budget deliberations, as all sides are jockeying as to what to add to the budget or not with the June 30 deadline fast approaching.

Not only is the state now in the hole $447 million, but Senate and Assembly Democratic leaders have said they would maybe double that sum to provide additional funds for non-Abbott, suburban districts as well.

A firm figure has yet to emerge, but the Education Law Center (ELC), the Newark advocacy group that has led the Abbott litigation, this week released a report using OLS numbers that put the cost at $600 million. That would fund an estimated 221 districts now spending less than what the SFRA deems as “adequate.”

David Sciarra, ELC’s executive director, said the calculations were meant to break down exactly who would benefit under the various scenarios under consideration. Sciarra had argued for the court to provide additional funding for the non-Abbott districts as well.

Sciarra said last night that he would review the OLS’s latest estimates for the Abbott districts, since his office has come up with some different numbers as well. He said the original OLS estimate failed to include certain preschool costs that could bring the number up again.

“The [state education department] should promptly release the aid increase required to fully fund both the 31 urban districts covered by court order and, at the very least, those districts below their adequacy level under the SFRA formula,” Sciarra said in an email.

“The increase in preschool expansion aid must be included,” he said. “The bipartisan Office of Legislative Services should verify the aid amounts, since having accurate aid allocations is critical for a final budget.”

Sciarra also said the department should start to notify the districts, even of estimated amounts, “so that districts can have teachers, support staff and programs in place in the schools by September.”