Sweeney and Prieto Thrust and Parry over School Funding Plan

John Mooney | January 11, 2017 | Education
Senate president and assembly speaker agree on at least one issue: They need to get out ahead of governor’s ‘Fairness Formula’

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto is a primary sponsor of the legislation that Gov. Chris Christie wants to push through.
While it’s anyone’s guess as to what Gov. Chris Christie will do next with school funding, state Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto continue to spar on what will be the Democratic strategy.

On the same day the Senate unanimously passed a resolution to hold four hearings on the topic, Prieto announced his chamber’s education committee would hold four hearings of its own, starting next week.

“This is the number one issue of the day,” Prieto said yesterday in an interview after Christie’s State of the State address. “We need to see what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and make it better.”

But the move drew a snide rebuke from Sweeney at his own press conference following the governor’s speech, “We don’t have to have one more hearing. All we need to do is pass one bill, and end the games that are being played.”

Implicit in Sweeney’s remark is a challenge to Prieto to begin addressing some of the thorniest obstacles in the current funding formula.

These include the so-called adjustment or hold-harmless aid to districts, and the funding caps for districts with big enrollment changes, both of which Sweeney said could be phased out over five years. The adjustment aid goes to districts that could lose money under the formula, allowing them to phase in the losses. The caps are meant to prevent sudden changes in aid due to fluctuations in enrollment.

Both were added by the Legislature nearly a decade ago to help protect individual districts, and Sweeney said their elimination at this point could bring scores of other districts toward closer alignment to the funding formula.

“That alone would get us to 88 percent (full) funding across the board,” Sweeney said. “We don’t have to do a lot, just undo what the Legislature did in 2008.”

Yet such an idea has been a nonstarter with Prieto, setting up the standoff. Several of his Hudson County school districts, especially Jersey City, would potentially see steep drops in funding if the adjustment aid was eliminated.

The Democrats’ give and take is being played out in the shadow of Christie’s undisclosed plans to advance his own “Fairness Formula,” which would essentially blow up the current funding formula and provide the same per-pupil aid to all districts, no matter the needs.

Christie didn’t mention the topic in his State of the State address yesterday, barely touching on education at all in a speech instead dominated by the issue of opioid addiction and treatment.

Yet there is widespread speculation that he may try to press the plan in his fiscal 2018 budget address in late February, a prospect that could prove troublesome for many districts as they put together their own budgets for next year.

At the same time, the Christie administration has petitioned the state Supreme Court to endorse his plan as part of the ongoing Abbott v. Burke litigation, adding to the uncertainty.

Both Sweeney and Prieto clearly are working to get ahead of Christie’s budget address, even though they disagree about an alternative.

“We may have to reject (Christie’s budget numbers), I don’t know, and that’s why we need to get it going,” Prieto said.

Sweeney said at this point, Christie may not divulge his plans until the day of the budget.

“Why would he play his hand out any sooner?” Sweeney said. “I think he’ll wait until he gives out the numbers to schools, which would create a constitutional crisis. I hope I’m a thousand percent wrong, but he’s not going to play his hand, I wouldn’t expect him to.”

Sweeney’s plan is to create an eight-member Senate Select Committee on School Funding Fairness, chaired by him, to hold hearings across the state. The resolution passed yesterday 33-0.