Sweeney Pushes to Keep His School-Funding Plan Alive

Senate president adds new wrinkle to scheme, a select committee to investigate school funding statewide

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester)
Senate President Steve Sweeney last week took another shot at staying front and center on the topic of school funding, even as his hopes of seeing his plan implemented are growing more uncertain, at least in the near term.

Sweeney announced Friday that he would file a resolution tomorrow — and expects passage tomorrow —creating a new Select Committee on School Funding Fairness to hold hearings across New Jersey to gain testimony on the state of school funding.

“It will be very bipartisan,” Sweeney said Friday in an interview. “It won’t be a committee to make a vote itself, but to go out there and get information so we can lay out the numbers.”

All of this is with a clear eye to reviving Sweeney’s most recent proposal to create a task force to actually come up with a plan to improve on the state’s school-funding formula, a proposal that he took on the road as well with public meetings in more than a dozen communities.

That proposal passed the Senate, but died in the Assembly, where Speaker Vincent Prieto said he would not post it. His objection was that task force would have the power to devise the plan, not the Legislature itself.

Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Christie continues to press his own “Fairness Formula” plan, which would bring seismic changes to state funding of schools, with every district — regardless of wealth or needs —receiving the same $6,500 per student in state aid.

That plan has no chance in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, but the Christie administration has petitioned the state Supreme Court to consider the proposal as part of its ongoing Abbott v. Burke deliberations.

And with his own state budget plan coming out in the next six weeks, there is widespread conjecture — and fear, among some — that Christie will include his funding plan in the fiscal 2018 budget, all but certainly forcing a face-off with the Legislature and maybe the court as well.

Sweeney on Friday said he hoped his alternative was third option that would help the Legislature develop its own politically acceptable plan that could pass both chambers.

But it’s pretty unclear what that plan could be, including whether the commission and its hearings will even provide new information that isn’t readily available.

Sweeney was noncommittal about what he was looking for or even what would come next, although his preferred endgame clearly remains to get districts closer to full funding under the School Funding Reform by redistributing certain aid categories to be more equitable. He said his proposal would continue to call for increases in overall aid as well.

“We’ll produce the numbers and see where we go from there,” he said. “Special education (aid), other outliers that are driving budgets, these need attention … Nothing impacts property taxes more than education funding, and its gotten out of whack.”

Sweeney is also fully cognizant that the governor will soon be dominating headlines with his own budget proposal, maybe starting tomorrow with his last State of the State address. He said he has not spoken with Christie about his plans, nor could he predict what he’ll do.

“But we have to be prepared for the nuclear option,” Sweeney said. “It could throw us into a constitutional crisis. He knows we’d never stand by and let that (funding proposal) happen.”

The new commission would hold a total of four hearings and consist of a half-dozen members, he said, and the Senate president would serve as its chair. Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate education chair, would also serve on the commission, and it would comprise both Democrats and Republicans.