New School-Funding Case Turns Spotlight on State’s Rural Districts

John Mooney | September 24, 2014 | Education
According to complaint, 16 poor school systems are being underfunded by nearly $20 million

New Jersey’s school-funding fight is heading back to the courts — again.

In yet another foray into the judicial arena that has become central to New Jersey’s school-funding struggles, lawyers have filed a formal complaint against the Christie administration over its failure to fully fund 16 mostly rural districts.

Akin to the state’s landmark Abbott v. Burke litigation that has centered on urban districts, the latest complaint in the case known as Bacon v. NJ Department of Education keeps alive a nearly 20-year-old claim as to whether the state has provided adequate resources to poor, rural districts such as Lakewood, Buena Regional, and Woodbine.

The lawyers, led by the organization leading the Abbott litigation, this summer put the administration on notice that a complaint would be filed, and on September 15, they kept that promise, filing the formal complaint in state Superior Court in Mercer County. Arguments are scheduled for December 11.

The complaint claims that the state has failed to adequately fund the School Funding Reform Act, violating a 2008 state appellate court ruling in the Bacon case to provide the needed resources to these districts, including for mandated preschool.

“The children in our district cannot wait any longer,” Upper Deerfield Superintendent Peter Koza said in the announcement of the latest filing.

“We need funding under the formula so we can provide them with the tools they need to succeed in school,” Koza’s statement read. “One of those tools — high-quality preschool — has been shown to benefit students well into their elementary years. It is our fervent hope that the State will be instructed to provide these needed resources to our district.”

The complaint alleges that the 16 districts are underfunded by $18 million, and about 2,000 eligible schoolchildren are being denied access to mandated preschool.

Said Hammonton Superintendent C. Dan Blachford: “Hammonton continues to be severely underfunded, and early this year the NJDOE sent us a letter stating we are under adequacy by $11,919,928.

“We only have a half-day preschool program, and this severely limits our ability to provide an effective education to students who are at risk,” his statement read. “Furthermore, using the model-district program, we should have 51 additional teachers and 12 additional administrators.”

The full list of affected districts is: Buena Regional, Clayton, Commercial, Egg Harbor, Fairfield, Hammonton Township, Lakehurst, Lakewood, Lawrence, Little Egg Harbor, Maurice River, Ocean Township, Quinton, Upper Deerfield, Wallington, and Woodbine.

But while directly affecting only a handful of districts, the case is seen among critics and advocacy groups as a potential harbinger in pressing Gov. Chris Christie to meet the obligations of the SFRA funding formula.

The formula hasn’t been funded since its first year under former Gov. Jon Corzine, and after steep cuts by Christie in 2010, three-quarters of all districts still have not returned to prior levels in funding.

“That our State has chosen to ignore a court order for nearly six years is concerning,” said Susan Cauldwell, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ Community Organizing.

“Study after study has demonstrated the lasting benefits of high-quality preschool programs, particularly for low-income students,” she said last night. “These benefits last well into elementary school . . . The state must comply with the court order.”