Democratic Lawmakers Add Last-Minute Funding for Pet Education Projects

Nearly $40 million in spending tacked onto proposed state budget sent to Gov. Christie

Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Gary Schaer during yesterday's budget debate.
Spending on public schools –- one-third of the total state budget – would appear to be pretty much unchanged in the Democrats’ proposed spending plan sent to Gov. Chris Christie last night.

But there were a few notable spending additions in the Democrats’ plan – amounting to nearly $40 million, and each tied to specific legislators and their interests.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) won an additional $7 million for vocational schools, a pet cause that saw a package of bills passed this year.

Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Bergen), chairman of the Assembly’s budget committee, secured $5.2 million in additional funds for non-public schools, including funding purportedly for security to protect religious schools from potential terrorist attacks.

The biggest dollar winners were state Sen. Nellie Pou and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, who won nearly $20 million for their home school district of Paterson, where more than 300 layoffs are planned.

“It saves a lot of jobs, it saves hundreds of job,” Wimberly said. “We have to do what we have to do.”

A late addition to the proposed expenditures came from state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), who saw $1 million added to her home school district of Montclair under “achievement gap” funding. Gill has successfully won this extra funding for Montclair under Democratic governors in the past, maintaining that the district’s efforts toward closing the achievement gap are address a statewide issue and and are even a statewide model.

“Montclair has a history of getting this money, and I think that was why it won the support of the caucus,” Gill said yesterday.

Still, the budget language allowing the move is intriguing in itself, basically setting criteria that only fit Montclair, but without naming the district outright.

Of course, Christie may veto each spending item when he announces his budget response today at a midday press conference. But Democrats said it was worth a try, even if trying to win approval of the extra spending is a bit of a reach.

“I think the governor gets it,” Prieto said of his package for the vo-tech schools, which includes $4 million in restored aid for adult education programs.

The governor has already vetoed the measures in the form of individual bills, Prieto acknowledged, but he noted that was outside the budget process.

“He said we should work this out in the budget, and that’s what we did,” Prieto said.

Such has been the process for school funding over the last few years, with Christie putting forward state aid figures in the late winter, then not much more than tinkering around the edges afterward.

For a vast majority of schools, state funding will be essentially flat, which has been the common theme in recent years.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate’s education committee, won an additional $2 million in the budget to sustain two grant programs, one for professional development related to teacher evaluation and the other for technology support for the new PARCC exams.

Also a member of the Senate’s budget committee, Ruiz conceded that these were miniscule changes to what is a $9 billion aid package for the state’s schools.

“It’s nothing, but it’s at least an acknowledgement from this Legislature that we can do better,” Ruiz said of the specific grants.

In the bigger picture, she acknowledged there is little opportunity for changing the aid for most school districts, especially with a calendar under which school districts set their budgets in early spring.

“By the time we get the information (from the administration), districts have already submitted their own budgets to the Department of Education,” she said. “We end up having no say in the process.”

“If we really want to have an impact, we have to change the way we do budgeting,” she said.

Some lobbyists said they wished the Legislature would take a broader view in its budget deliberations, saying the needs are widespread.

“The reach of these changes are pretty limited,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the suburban schools group. “As opposed to building more aid into things like special education, where the impact would be for all. It’s not that these special interests are bad. But by no means are they reaching a majority of kids.”

One legislator spurned in the Democrats’ budget was state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), who was called on by the governor in his budget address to shepherd a $2 million appropriation for a pilot school-voucher program – a perennial bid that has yet to succeed.

The Democrats cut the $2 million, and even Christie’s veto pen can’t save it at this point, as the governor can only subtract from the Democrats’ budget, not add to it.

“It’s extraordinary that the majority continues to block this avenue of opportunity for kids,” Kean said of the Democrats. “They were uniformly opposed from the get-go. We fought very hard to get this pilot initiated, and for the majority party, it wasn’t even an area of interest.”

When asked whether he would keep trying in the years ahead, maybe with a different proposal, Kean said there aren’t many options left after what has become a decades-long struggle.

“We have looked at stand-alone bills through this, we’ve looked at tax credits,” he said. “I don’t know.”

Here’s the full list of last-minute budget additions:

  • $20 million for high enrollment-decreasing ratable districts (Paterson, Egg Harbor City)
  • $5.2 million for non-public schools security, nursing and technology.
  • $4 million for adult education at vo-techs
  • $3 million for county vocational partnerships
  • $2 million for technology and professional development grants
  • $1.5 million in federal funding for Learning Ally, a program for dyslexia instruction
  • $1 million to “achievement gap” programs (Montclair)
  • $550,000 for extra aid to Pinelands districts
  • $435,000 to supplement AP exam fee waivers.