It’s hard to overstate the importance of school funding to New Jersey’s future.
The last time such a critical issue was left to a single commission to recommend a solution was in 1947, with epic changes to the state’s constitution at stake.
This time, Senate President Steve Sweeney has proposed a plan for a new State School Funding Fairness Commission to bring the state in line with its landmark School Funding Reform Act.
By next summer, the four-member commission proposed by Sweeney would hold hearings and propose changes to the SFRA that would seek to erase the wide disparities in state aid to schools within five years.
On the table would be line items in state aid protecting some districts more than others, property tax limits that restrict what can be asked of local taxpayers, and a number of other issues.
Once the report is completed, the Legislature would then vote, “yea”or “nay,” no changes allowed.
NJ Spotlight’s editors and reporters sat down with Sweeney on Friday and asked him about how he came up with the plan, and what comes next. The following are excerpts from that exchange:
NJ Spotlight: Why did you choose this path? You have been working on separate legislation for amending the formula yourself, why go with the commission model?
Sweeney: It was being pragmatic and realizing we needed an avenue to get something done. We can throw out numbers and winners and losers [in proposed bills], and what happens? Nothing will get passed because everyone will be protective of those who might lose funding over those who might gain funding … It’s become way out of whack and imbalanced, with $500 million essentially parked in districts that are overfunded.
NJS: No district would say it is overfunded.
Sweeney: I understand that, but take my home county, Gloucester County, where Washington Township is 140 percent of what it should receive under the formula, and the largest district in Kingsway is 65 percent funded. How do I explain to Kingsway that they’re at 65 and Washington is at 140?
NJS: Why the commission model, similar to the one used in military base closings?
Sweeney: Because the Legislature has to vote yes or no.
NJS: It is mostly districts like Jersey City that would take a hit, isn’t it?
Sweeney: I don’t like to focus on Jersey City, because everyone goes to the whole Sweeney vs. Steve Fulop thing. But Camden also loses $10 million and others in my district would lose money. There are also other things we should be looking at like tax abatements and pilots where money is taken away from districts and the state has to step in. There is a fairness issue here … The point is about being fair to everybody.
[related]NJS: The proposal calls for the commission to look at four areas, including adjustment aid and extra aid for high enrollment growth. Are you limiting it to those areas?
Sweeney: We’re open to all areas, but we want to make sure if I’m in Camden, West Deptford, or Piscataway, we are all being treated the same.
NJS: Is your previous work on a separate bill with state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) now moot?
Sweeney: Right now, I consider that being input into this proposal. This is really about getting something passed. This is a different bill.
NJS: And the governor, any contact with him on this?
Sweeney: I expect the governor to come out with his own plan, to be honest. And the point is his won’t get passed. He wants [to replace the formula], which we won’t allow … But with this, he’ll get two of the four commission members, and that will leave us two Republicans and two Democrats. We did four members for a reason, so not to give one side and edge over the other.
NJS: Is this moving on a fast track? Otherwise, if this is approved in the fall, that takes it to next November (2017) during a gubernatorial election.
Sweeney: The point is it has to get done. If we move now, it is a proposal next June, after the primary. And it is an up or down vote. The beauty of this is I don’t need 80 and 40 votes (in the Senate and Assembly, respectively), but 41 and 21.
NJS: Who are the members of this commission?
Sweeney: They are academics and experts, people like past treasurers and others who are experts in school funding.
To me, this is the simplest approach … We can argue this issue all we want, and we’ll blame the urbans for spending too much or the rich suburban districts. We can keep pointing fingers, or we can bring it to a head.
NJS: Will this bill pass?
Sweeney: I think so. I’ll get it passed in the Senate, and we’ll work with the Assembly. People will holler, but property taxes are the biggest issue in New Jersey, and since schools are 67 percent of the tax bill and unfair and un-level, people will want to do this.