Motion Filed in State’s Top Court Challenges Christie Over School Aid

John Mooney | March 28, 2014 | Education
Education Law Center, citing Abbott v. Burke mandates, says governor can’t ignore funding formula stipulated by statute

Top row, from left: Judge Ariel A. Rodriguez; Justice Anne M. Patterson; Justice Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina; Judge Mary Catherine Cuff; Front row, from left: Justice Jaynee LaVecchia; Chief Justice Stuart Rabner; Justice Barry T. Albin;
Gov. Chris Christie has gotten plenty of heat for short-funding the state’s school-finance formula in previous budget years, but what he decided to do this year may land him in hot water — in court.

The Education Law Center yesterday filed a motion with the state Supreme Court, under the landmark Abbott v. Burke ruling, taking Christie to task for failing to use the School Funding Reform Act’s (SFRA) formula at all in determining school aid for fiscal 2015.

The court, in its last Abbott decision in 2011, ordered that the formula continue to be operated at its “optimal level,” but the ELC says Christie instead has all but abandoned it.

The motion doesn’t ask that additional funding be provided, as yet, although that option is still on the table. But it does ask the state’s top court to order the Christie administration to at minimum provide in public state-aid notices how much money each school district should be getting under the law.

“Whether properly funded or not funded at all, you can’t just walk away from it,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the ELC and lead attorney in the Abbott litigation.

“If you do, we’re just back to the bad old days where nobody knew what was coming and it’s a totally arbitrary process,” he said last night.

The administration hasn’t denied that it did not run the formula this year, instead bestowing on districts a straight $20 more per-student across the board, amounting to less than a 1 percent increase in aid statewide.

Asked about the decision last week, though, a Christie spokesman told NJ Spotlight that the administration is not abandoning the formula altogether.

“I would discourage you from reading more into that point this year than in any other, including previous budget years, when fiscal realities did not allow legislatures and administrations to fully fund a given education formula,” said spokesman Kevin Roberts.

Efforts to get further comment last night were unsuccessful.

The ELC’s motion says that even in failing to fully fund the SFRA, the administration is still obligated to tell school districts the amount of their so-called “adequacy” budgets under the act and how much they would be entitled to receive if the formula were fully funded.

The notification requirement did not preclude the administration from budgeting a smaller amount, or even staying with the average amount of $20 per student, Sciarra said, but compliance with that part of the law would give the Legislature the information it needs deciding on the final budget.

The funding formula and its requirements has been the focal point of a tug-of-war between the governor and the Legislature for the last three years – with the governor mostly winning.

After the court, in its last Abbott ruling, ordered an additional $500 million in aid for the 31 high-needs districts covered by the Abbott rulings, Christie in each of his subsequent budgets has sought to change the specifics of the formula that requires extra funding for students deemed disadvantaged, such as those who are living in poverty or have limited English skills.

In each case, Christie succeeded in making the changes in the actual aid totals, but the Legislature fought back in rejecting the budget language. When former state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf sought to codify some of the changes anew in the mandated report last year, the Legislature again rejected it.

On the same day that the ELC’s motion was filed in court, the state Assembly yesterday again passed a resolution rejecting the administration’s attempts to buck the school-aid formula. The Senate version of the resolution has not yet been voted on, but is expected to pass along party lines.

Nonetheless, the chairman of the Senate budget committee said yesterday he doubted much would change for districts in terms of their aid totals, with or without the SFRA numbers being run.

But he stressed that the formula is there for a reason.

“Yes, its troublesome,” said state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) in an interview yesterday. “We have a funding formula that should be followed, and if funded at even a higher percentage, it would help property taxes in the state. But they just ignore it, and it’s not like they come back with an alternative.”

Sciarra, too, acknowledged that even if the motion is heard and granted by the court – a process that could take anywhere from a few weeks to months – the outcome for districts may not change.

But he said it was important for the ELC and others to draw a line in the sand to make it clear how much the administration can deviate from the SFRA and the school-aid formula.

‘We need to keep the formula operating,” he said. “It’s an incremental step, but it’s an important step.”