Districts Get Official Word: State Aid Payments Frozen for Most Schools Next Year

Some are glad that funds won’t be cut despite fiscal woes; others note than once again Christie isn’t complying with full-funding law

New Jersey public schools were told officially yesterday what they had already learned Tuesday during Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address: state aid next year will basically amount to nothing more than they received this year.

The district-by-district aid numbers released yesterday included an awful lot of zeros under the “change” column showing the difference this year’s and next year’s aid allocations.

Overall, direct aid to districts would go up just $4.6 million out of $9 billion total, a tiny .05 percent increase. The totals are not set until a final budget is struck this summer, but they rarely change through the Legislature’s budget review.

There were, however, more than 80 school districts slated to get more aid, including Hoboken with an increase of $749,000 and Englewood with $331,000 more.

In virtually every district where aid would go up, state officials said the hikes were due to small increases in Christie’s proposed budget for expanded preschool and for the state’s increasingly popular inter-district school-choice program.

Proposed NJ School Aid 2015-16
Proposed NJ School Aid 2015-16

K-12 school aid total and by category proposed for 2015-16, and prior year totals.nnSearch by one or more field

But that left 500 other districts seeing no increase at all under Christie’s budget plan, including the state’s largest urban districts, where the pressures for potential layoffs are greatest, including Newark and Camden.

The news was greeted with both resignation and concern. Local school officials had already anticipated another year of flat state aid as they started devising their 2015-16 budgets. For some, there was even a little relief that there weren’t any cuts in aid, given the state’s dire financial picture around its pension liability.

“In this period of so many unknowns going forward, a lot of us were pleasantly surprised that there were no reductions,” said Jorden Schiff, superintendent of Hillsborough schools.

Still, flat funding from the state, combined with state-mandated 2 percent limits on local property tax increases, leaves little room for paying the bills, Schiff said.

“It is very difficult when a lot of the costs are outside our board’s control,” he added, alluding to big-ticket items like energy bills and health benefits.

Others decried Christie’s continued underfunding of the state’s School Funding Reform Act, which has been fully funded just once since its passage in 2008.

On the day of Christie’s speech, the Education Law Center released an analysis showing that funding gap between what wealthy and poor districts were entitled to under the funding formula had doubled in size during Christie’s tenure.

Still, the message from the administration was that school districts were largely spared in even getting again what they received this year.

“With the size of the direct payment for pensions, healthcare and Social Security … I think most districts understand the pressure the state is under,” said state Education Commissioner David Hespe. “Holding flat is probably a relief for many of them.”

The direct aid is by far the largest piece of the state’s aid package to schools, a little over $9 billion out of $12.8 billion. The balance represents pension and medical benefit payments and school construction debt service, all of which would go up significantly under the budget.

Payments to the teachers pension fund would rise from $415 million to $802 million, almost doubling, and debt service payments for school construction would increase from $519 million to $884 million, a 70 percent rise.

“The number of (construction) projects has been accelerating,” Hespe said. “It’s a real cost-driver in this budget, a result of the sheer size of the number of projects that have been started.”