Schools Grateful for Slightly More State Aid Tucked Into Tight Budget

John Mooney | February 26, 2014 | Budget, Education
Increase amounts to less than one-half of 1 percent, although projects touted by Christie will get extra funding

christie budget
Education funding was among the first topics raised in Gov. Christie’s budget address yesterday — maybe intentionally, as it was one of the few bright spots in what was a pretty dire picture of New Jersey’s financial realities.

That wasn’t saying much.

The reality for schools is that Christie’s pronouncement that no districts will see less state aid next year under his fiscal 2015 budget also meant that none will see much more aid, either.

The bottom line is Christie proposes a .4 percent increase in state aid for schools next year, to a total of $9.01 billion and amounting to $36.8 million increase spread around the state’s 600 districts – or roughly $60,000 per district.

There were a couple notable items within that total, including $5 million in new money to test extended-day programs and a little more for special education and inter-district school choice.

For most school districts, though, the math is likely to be pretty simple when they get their state aid figures on Thursday: It will amount, on average, to $20 more per student than last year. For a district with 1,000 kids, that’s $20,000. For one with 10,000 students, it amounts to $200,000.

For school-district representatives, or at least their advocates, who were on hand for the budget address and were fully expecting a tough year, a little money is better than nothing.

“In some respects, it’s the most friendly budget we’ve had under Christie,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the suburban schools group.

“Compared to what we were expecting …,“ she said, her voice trailing off. “I mean, we knew the realities.”

In his address, Christie put the best face he could on the education budget, saying it was the most state aid ever provided to public education and continued to fulfill his core priorities.

He touted the $5 million allotted for an “Education Innovation Fund” that would offer grants to allow districts to try longer school days and lengthier academic years, which he announced as one of his main initiatives during the State of the State address last month. It’s a relatively small sum, but Christie said it could lead to wider-scale programs in the future.

The fund will be “a competitive ‘Race to the Top’ style program which will call on school districts to put forward proposals for the best way to implement approaches to increase students’ learning time,” Christie said. “We can then scale the most effective approaches on a state-wide basis.”

Christie also noted an increase in preschool funding to $653 million — although that is a court-ordered expense required under the Abbott v. Burke rulings.

And he said the state would add money to the inter-district choice program that allows close to one-third of the state’s school districts to accept students from outside their borders. However, the reality is that the $5 million added to that program won’t ease the state-mandated tight enrollment caps that many of the choice districts have protested.

The centerpiece of the spending increases, though, are two new funds that state officials said will be doled out on a per-pupil basis, for a total of $20 per student.

One fund, for $13.5 million, is ostensibly aimed at helping school districts address added costs related to new online national testing, known as the PARCC tests, coming in 2015. The other fund, $13.5 million, is labeled “Per Pupil Growth Aid.”

Whatever the names, both funds are not restricted to any specific costs, officials said, and could just as well go into general operating budgets.

There appeared to be few surprises in the budget – unlike last year, when more than 40 districts counted among those receiving more aid actually received just one dollar more.

Dozens of other districts were required last year to pay greater debt service, which offset any increases. State officials said neither of those budget twists would happen again.

Nonetheless, the real verdict will come on Thursday when the actual state aid figures are released for each district.

Lobbyists and others were withholding judgment until then, but they acknowledged the picture could have been much worse, considering the state’s fiscal pressures, especially pertaining to pensions.

“It’s relatively good news considering there was no less aid,” said Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “Considering he had to put more than $2 billion alone in pensions, I think most of our members will be pleased with this.”

The New Jersey School Boards Association also spoke in general support of the spending plan, saying the money earmarked for PARCC readiness was important.

“All of us in the education community are concerned about the technological challenges presented by PARCC, whether they involve available broadband, hardware, or software compatibility,” said Lawrence Feinsod, the NJSBA’s executive director.

Legislators commenting afterward on the budget address didn’t focus much on the education funding, either – or, at least, they were not protesting.

When asked specifically if a state aid increase of less than 1 percent would be sufficient, state Senate president Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) responded: “There’s just no more money there.”

Aside from the state aid picture for school districts, the state Department of Education was the only state agency to see a significant increase in funding under Christie’s plan.

The 800-employee department is slated to add nearly $15 million more to this year’s $68 million budget, a 21 percent increase.

But the increase is not expected to bring many changes, as officials said $8 million of the money was to go to transitioning to the new testing while the state keeps its current high school exams for another year. Another $3 million is earmarked to cover costs at Katzenbach School for the Deaf that are no longer covered by tuition.