Assembly Budget Committee Hears Pleas to Stick to State’s School-Aid Formula

Crowded classrooms and disrepair of buildings in Paterson cited as examples of impact of annual funding shortfall

Members of the Paterson Public Schools Parents Organization testifying at last year's Assembly Budget Committee hearing.
Complaints that local school districts will see only slight increases in funding in Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed spending plan for the next fiscal year are becoming a common refrain, as the proposed budget will again fall short of what’s called for in New Jersey’s school-aid law.

School officials and members of the public are drawing attention to the fact that Christie continues to underfund the mandated school-aid formula established with bipartisan support in 2008, and that needy districts, like Paterson, are truly struggling.

“Our kids have not had an adequate education due to the underfunding,” said LaVonne McEacherin, a member of the Paterson Public Schools Parent Organization, who spoke at a more than five-hour legislative budget session yesterday.

“We have to give our kids options, and right now they don’t have many options,” said McEacherin, one of several witnesses to speak specifically about how Christie’s policies are affecting Paterson.

Lawmakers are reviewing Christie’s proposed $34.8 billion spending plan in a series of public hearings being held in advance of a July 1 deadline for a new budget.

During yesterday’s hearing, hosted by the Assembly Budget Committee at Montclair State University, lawmakers also heard from dozens of witnesses who said the state needs to invest more in areas like public transit, higher education, women’s health, and services for the developmentally disabled.

No increases in taxes

The new budget put forward last month by Christie does not call for any tax increases. That maintains a trend that the governor has followed throughout his more than six years in office.

Christie has also proposed continuing a series of phased-in business-tax cuts that have cost the state more than $2 billion in revenue in recent years.

Though other Republicans and business-lobbying groups have praised Christie for showing discipline when it comes to the state budget, his overall approach has also left many departments and programs with flat state funding or only modest increases.

One of the areas where funding will go up only slightly in Christie’s budget is the allocation for direct aid to K-12 school districts. A proposed $36 million increase will fall well short of what New Jersey’s school-aid formula calls for, with experts saying the gap is roughly $1 billion.

“Our students can ill afford another year in which their schools are starved of the resources needed to give them a meaningful opportunity to achieve state academic standards,” said Sharon Krengel, director of policy and outreach for the Education Law Center, during yesterday’s hearing. “We therefore urge the Legislature to flatly reject the governor’s school-aid proposals.”

Susan Cauldwell of Save Our Schools also called for adhering to the school-aid formula, especially as Christie and other Republicans have talked about reworking it.

“I think we need to give this formula a chance,” Cauldwell said.

The state is generally allowed to disobey requirements in state laws like the school-aid formula because New Jersey’s constitution requires the governor and lawmakers to enact a balanced budget. That means the state budget can effectively suspend those laws each year since the constitution supersedes a law.

But the state constitution also requires a “thorough and efficient” system of education in each community, and the New Jersey Supreme Court has at times stepped in and ordered increased state funding for needy districts to ensure that the constitutional mandate is being met. The last time the court weighed in was in 2011, when it ordered an extra $500 million in spending on needy districts.

Rosie Grant, executive director of the Paterson Education Fund, said Paterson is now being hit particularly hard by gaps in state funding since then. The district is being shorted by nearly $40 million, she said, and has a roughly $45 million budget gap.

“The district shouldn’t be forced to cut $45 million from its budget because the state chooses to ignore its (funding) formula,” Grant said.

Impact of reduced school aid

John McEntee, president of the Paterson Education Association, said cutbacks have already forced teachers to regularly instruct classes with over 40 students. Poor heat and leaky roofs in schools have also been a byproduct of the lack of investment, he said.

“The state should be ashamed of themselves,” McEntee said.

The testimony about conditions in Paterson made an impression on the committee, with several members promising to look more closely at the issue going forward. Christie is charged under the state constitution with presenting the budget, but it’s ultimately up to lawmakers to craft legislation that appropriates the state’s dollars.

However, Assemblyman Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) questioned whether the Paterson school district is making the best use of the dollars that are already being budgeted, suggesting that more money for classrooms could be freed up if wasteful spending practices could be identified and eliminated.

“It would appear to me that there’s plenty of money in the Paterson school district, we’re just not allocating it properly,” Bucco said. “Rather than cry for more money, the cry should be to look at the entire picture.”

In response, committee Chairman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) said the district is already subjected to tight state oversight after nearly two decades of state control.

“I think we can say clearly who is the responsible party for the current state of affairs,” Schaer said.

The committee, meanwhile, was also pressed yesterday to increase aid for public transportation, including New Jersey Transit. Those pleas came as agency rail workers who have been working without a new contract since 2011 are preparing to strike as early as Sunday. Union leaders have been negotiating with New Jersey Transit officials this week, but have yet to strike a deal.

“I am a senior and I am dependent on New Jersey Transit and other transit for my mobility,” said David Peter Alan, chair of the Lackawanna Coalition. “We need funding for New Jersey Transit.”

Some praise Christie’s approach

But not everyone who came to the hearing yesterday offered only criticism.

Anthony Russo, executive vice president of the Commerce and Industry Association of New Jersey, said Christie deserves credit for putting forward another budget that doesn’t raise taxes. He also praised a proposal in the budget that would increase the “rainy day” surplus account to nearly $800 million.

“We’re trending in the right direction,” he said.

And advocates for drug-addiction services said they’re also pleased to see more than $100 million in additional funding for substance-abuse programs, including money to combat addictions to heroin and other opiates.

“An investment of this magnitude is long overdue and much-needed,” said Mary Abrams, senior health policy analyst with the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies.

The legislative budget hearings are scheduled to continue next week with a meeting of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Tuesday at Rowan University in Glassboro. The Assembly Budget Committee’s next hearing is scheduled for Wednesday in Collingswood.

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