Candidates: Legislative District 15

Patience Haggin | November 6, 2011
Republicans and Democrats split over school funding in the 15th District

In the 15th District, incumbent Democrats are clashing with their Republican challengers over school funding and the energy master plan.

Democratic Sen. Shirley Turner is running for re-election against Republican Donald Cox. In the Assembly race, Democrats Bonnie Watson Coleman and Reed Gusciora are running against Republicans Peter Yull and Kathy Kilcommons.

School funding has been a topic of debate in many districts this campaign season and the 15th was among these.

Under the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, state aid is allotted based on student enrollment with a formula that gives extra funding to communities with a high concentration of students who are poor, have special needs, or are not native English speakers.

Both Coleman and Gusciora expressed support for continuing to use this funding formula.

All three Republicans support replacing it with the Fair School Funding Act. The act, proposed by Sen. Michael Doherty, would allot state aid equally on a per-pupil basis regardless of other factors. According to Kilcommons, a Lawrenceville woman who works in a law firm, this would have the effect of reducing property taxes by 25 to 33 percent.

The Republicans are not in unanimous agreement on all school choice measures, however. Kilcommons supports expanding charter schools and vouchers, while both Yull and Cox see these as temporary measures that should not be the focus of state reform.

Charter schools and vouchers “are interim help, but if institutionalized they will be another example of abandonment of those that can’t help themselves,” said Yull, a retired credit manager of the NJ Department of Transportation who lives in Trenton.

Cox is a financial advisor and former Ewing Township Councilman.

Turner, a career advisor from Lawrenceville, said she supports greater public school choice, but many of the proposed plans for school choice “undermine public education by privatizing our public education system.”

She said she objected to what she sees as a lack of public oversight in charter schools and to the way the proposed voucher program allows corporations to direct their taxes to the voucher program in exchange for tax credits.

A state senator since 1998, Turner sponsored a bill last year that would require a vote of approval from local residents before a charter school could open.

Like Yull and Cox, Gusciora argued that the state must find other ways to address fundamental problems with the education system, describing charter schools and vouchers as “merely a band-aid, rather than a solution.”

All three challengers support Gov. Chris Christie’s master plan for the state’s investment in renewable energy. The revised version of the plan, introduced last June, pushes the state toward a greater dependence on nuclear power and natural gas and scales back its original goals for investing in solar and wind.

Christie’s plan “strikes the right balance,” for the moment, Kilcommons said, arguing that renewable energy would become more popular on its own without government interference. “I’m a fan of renewable energy for its own sake and believe market forces will drive that industry ultimately.”

Both Coleman and Gusciora oppose the governor’s plan for not making a serious enough commitment to clean energy.

Gusciora, an attorney from Trenton who has been in the Assembly since 1996, criticized Christie for pulling New Jersey out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative program, a regional cap-and-trade program among several Northeastern states. He is currently vice-chair of the Assembly Environment Committee.

Both he and Coleman criticized Christie for reducing the state’s investment in clean energy from its original goals. Christie’s plan requires 22.5 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, lowered from an earlier goal of 30 percent.

Coleman, a certified public manager from Ewing who has served in the Assembly since 1998, said she supports “higher goals for renewable energy” and believes the state should limit its investment to the cleanest energy sources, including wind and solar.

Candidates from both parties agreed on the need to find a way to increase revenues for the Department of Transportation, but differed on what that way would be.

Kilcommons, Yull, and Cox support temporarily imposing a small gasoline tax of a few cents per gallon.

Gusciora and Coleman said they would instead look into raising tolls.

Yull, Cox and Gusciora all expressed strong support for urging municipalities to consolidate and share services in order to reduce property taxes. Rather than pressing for municipal consolidation, Coleman would seek to reinstate the state aid and property tax rebates for schools, cities, and towns that were cut from the state budget in 2010.