‘Other’ School-Funding Plan Promises Fast Relief, but Does It Have a Chance?

John Mooney | August 16, 2016 | Education
Two Essex County legislators try again with a school-funding proposal, knowing the odds against it are high

State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, one of the prime sponsors of a move to end PARCC as a graduation requirement
As two high-profile plans to remake New Jersey’s school funding have yet to move in the Legislature, backers of a third proposal that would bring more immediate change are trying to get renewed attention.

State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey and Assemblyman John McKeon, both Essex County Democrats, have sponsored a bill they said would bring immediate relief to potentially more than 140 districts that are both underfunded by the state and that tax their residents at well more than the average rates.

The proposal, first filed last spring and now with a companion bill in the Senate, asks for $122 million in additional aid this year to address the plight of districts that Jasey said are nearing breaking point. “I don’t believe we can afford to wait any more, we can’t afford to wait at all,” Jasey said yesterday. “We’re losing staff in schools and we’re losing the public’s support and confidence.

The proposal has nowhere near the same backing as its competitors: one offered by Gov. Chris Christie to provide the same per-pupil aid to every district, and the other from Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to revise the existing funding formula through a state-appointed commission and provide additional aid over the next five years.

While those proposals have gotten most of the attention, both have failed to move forward in the Legislature.

Christie has said he is pinning his hopes on getting a groundswell of popular support from suburban districts that stand to gain the most under his proposal, to overcome the Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly. The proposal has been criticized for the deep cuts it would bring in urban districts.

“Stay tuned, stay tuned,” Christie said at a recent press conference, when asked by NJ Spotlight about his proposal’s slim prospects. “There is plenty of stuff that you thought wouldn’t get done that we have gotten done. We’ll look to shock you again.”

Sweeney has said he doesn’t expect action on his plan until the fall, but he too hasn’t shown he has much support yet in the Assembly. And even a fall passage of his plan would provide little time for a remedy to be devised by a state-appointed commission before the heat of next year’s gubernatorial election, in which Sweeney is an expected candidate.

In the meantime, Jasey and McKeon are trying to slip in their alternative plan, although Jasey was blunt last night when asked if the bill had a good chance of success.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “Actually, when I filed this in March, I was hoping we could get it in the budget … Now, it at least gives us a chance to talk to people.”

The Jasey-McKeon proposal works within the intricacies of the state’s existing School Funding Reform Act, providing additional aid to those most underfunded and overtaxed. It would apply to districts that have tax rates that are at least 35 percent over the state’s average equalized rate, while also seeing a shortfall in what they would be entitled under the SFRA.

Working with the state’s Office of Legislative Services, the legislators’ staffs determined that 142 districts would apply for the extra aid this year.

An OLS report in February listed the
districts with tax rates exceeding the average by 35 percent, one made up of mostly suburban schools but working-class ones, too. The most standing to gain would be Egg Harbor (an additional $7.4 million in aid), North Plainfield ($4.7 million), Monroe Township in Gloucester County ($4.5 million), and Burlington Township $3.5 million).

Jasey and McKeon said they did not see this as a long-term solution, but one to at least start helping districts stave off cuts in staffing and other programs. “There’s so much work to be done to repair the damage over the last several years,” Jasey said.