For Administration, School Aid Equals Property Tax Relief

Governor's office "strongly encourages" school districts not to use funding to restore cut programs

New Jersey school districts yesterday finally learned more of the details about the extra state aid they will receive under Gov. Chris Christie’s final budget. But there’s a twist: the administration wants most of them to use the money for property tax relief.

There still appeared to be some questions as to what actually will be required, if anything. But the governor’s office said late in the day that suburban districts receiving extra aid would be “strongly” encouraged to apply the added aid to property tax relief and not necessarily to restoring cut programs.

“The additional education aid included in this year’s budget is an opportunity to reduce property tax burdens by lowering local property tax levies for this fiscal year or the next and move closer toward real reform in our schools,” said Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts in a statement.

“The administration strongly encourages using this additional aid to lower taxes and make the important step toward new and effective management of our schools that focuses on improving student achievement, rather than increased spending.”

Ironically, the bulk of the additional $850 million in state aid was not going to tax relief. That’s because it’s headed to the state’s highest-poverty districts, per order of the state Supreme Court’s recent Abbott v. Burke ruling.

Roberts said in his statement that the $447 million in Abbott funding — in some cases tens of millions of dollars for a single district — “should be directed strategically toward areas of education as determined by each respective district.”

Mixed Messages

Other administration messages were not equally clear, however. As the day went on, various advocates said they were still waiting for specific guidelines.

Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a suburban schools group, said she was told by the governor’s office that districts would have some discretion but also not a lot of time to decide.

Strickland and others said they were told any district getting more than $100,000 in new aid would need to revise its budget and submit it to the state for final approval by August 15. There was also an option to apply the money to 2012-2013 budgets.

There had been mention of property tax relief, but not in strenuous terms, she said.

“The Garden State Coalition hopes that the administration’s guidance suggesting that funding be used for property tax relief will also mean that schools will not be discouraged from reducing large class sizes, or other important educational needs that have be put aside due to recent aid cutbacks,” Strickland said last night.

The state’s school boards association said its members were also awaiting instructions, but did concur that property tax relief was a good start.

“At the very least, school districts will be able to apply the governor’s additional $150 million [in non-Abbott aid] toward property tax relief, which has been a concern in many communities,” wrote Frank Belluscio, the association spokesman.

The Abbott Angle

David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, the Newark organization that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation, said the additional aid to the Abbott districts appeared in line with earlier estimates.

And he said he did not expect much guidance from the state, given the court’s order was specific that the money be provided to the districts as aid under the School Funding Reform Act.

“They really don’t need the guidance,” Sciarra said. “Certainly, I understand they will still need to send new budgets back in to the state, but this is meant as formula funding that provides quite a bit of flexibility to districts.”

Sciarra has implored districts to move quickly in revising their budgets in time to hire staff and make other moves for the coming fall. “Districts need to get their budgets moving now,” he said.

Playing Politics?

The announcement of the funding totals came with a strong dose of politics. Christie put out a press release that touted how in the end, he had restored all the state aid that had been cut last year, plus another $30 million.

“We are keeping faith with our commitment to New Jersey’s children and families, spending more money per pupil on New Jersey’s students than almost any other state in the country,” Christie said in a statement. “Now is the time to complement the dollars spent with real education reform to bring a focus on student learning, accountability and results.”

The claim that the administration restored all cuts rang hollow with some critics, who pointed out the majority of the new money was ordered by the courts — and fought by the administration.

Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the teachers union often at battle with Christie, said he heard a radio spot that the state’s Republican party is running that promotes Christie’s budget.

“Out of that $850 million, almost $500 million was from the court where he fought it tooth and nail,” Wollmer said. “He’s no hero. He did nothing for education funding, except try to gut it.”

Democratic legislators weren’t done, either, saying they still planned to seek an override to Christie’s cuts of more than $500 million in additional aid to suburban schools.

But that override vote was not among the 13 sought yesterday in the Senate, none of them reaching the required two-thirds majority.

Senate leaders said they would likely consider it with an override vote on Christie’s veto of the millionaires’ tax, a procedure that must start in the Assembly. Assembly leaders said they plan to first hold hearings over the summer on the impact of Christie’s budget.

“We want to do them all as a group, and hold off to see what happens first in the Assembly,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).