Top Democrats Disagree on How to Craft New School-Funding Plan

Split between Sweeney, Prieto comes as Christie pushes his ‘Fairness Formula,’ which would level per-student aid throughout NJ

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson)
Add school funding to the list of topics where state Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto don’t see eye to eye.

And with that addition, the odds are now looking longer for a resolution anytime soon — at least a legislative one — to the public schools’ perennial money crunch.

Last week, Prieto filed his version of a school-funding proposal that would make fixes to the existing formula under the School Funding Reform Act.

The bill matched in many ways Sweeney’s previously presented plan to create a bipartisan commission to recommend changes and that would resolve the issue with a vote and bypass Gov. Chris Christie entirely.

However, Prieto’s and Sweeney’s approaches have fundamental differences, ones that neither Democratic leader appeared to be bending on as of late last week.

The main one was Sweeney’s proposal for an appointed panel to come up with the changes to school funding, with the Legislature only voting up or down the eventual bill. Prieto said he supported a commission but insisted the Legislature should be able to craft that final bill.

In separate interviews Friday, both Democratic leaders said they were sticking to their positions, even if it meant delaying action.

“If [Prieto] doesn’t change his mind, it means we’re waiting for a new governor and having to wait another year,” Sweeney said.

Added Prieto: “I’m the one willing to compromise … but it has to be along the framework of the Legislature being truly part of the process.”

Whether this is all political posturing at this point is yet to be seen, and the wild card remains an even more dramatic proposal from Christie himself that is now in the courts.

But it’s a familiar refrain between these two Democrats. While they come from the same party, they have been at odds on some key issues like transportation funding and casino gambling.

[related]Both appeared resigned Friday to the other’s approach — and both had a quick reproach.

Sweeney said Prieto’s proposal would bring a repeat of the political maneuvering in the Legislature’s adoption of the SFRA in 2007, which brought a number of stopgaps and protections to individual districts.

It’s no secret that Prieto’s Hudson County district — including Jersey City and Hoboken — could see some of the steepest cuts in any reconfiguring of the formula under Sweeney’s plan.

“[Prieto] is talking about doing what screwed us up last time,” Sweeney said.

Sweeney’s proposal passed the Senate with 11 Republican votes, and the Senate president said it would pass the Assembly too — if only Prieto would post it. But he said the speaker coming up with an alternative only dooms any progress.

“To see him put this out there, he’s guaranteeing that we won’t go anywhere,” Sweeney said.

Prieto confirmed that he has no plans to move an Assembly version of Sweeney’s bill and asked that the Legislature be given a chance to make the best determination. His proposal calls for a six-member commission, as well as a study group of another 12 members.

“We should give it an opportunity,” he said. “That’s why we are elected as legislators. [Sweeney’s proposal] to me is a nonstarter.”

All this is predicated on Christie not getting his own way with his so-called Fairness Formula proposal, one that would equalize the per-student aid that every district receives from the state and lead to wide swings — up and down — for individual districts.

The proposal has virtually no shot in the Democratically controlled legislature, but Christie has taken it to the state Supreme Court as part of a petition that would also overhaul school union protection laws.

The court has asked for the parties in the case to file briefs by the end of this week about why it should even hear the case.