NJ’s Top Court Refuses to Hear Christie’s School-Funding, Seniority Brief

Two-page ruling points governor to lower court to fight teacher seniority, barely mentions funding challenge

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
It was a long-shot bid to begin with: Gov. Chris Christie’s petition to the state Supreme Court asking it to strike down teacher seniority and rewrite its landmark Abbott v. Burke school-funding rulings.

Yesterday, the high court announced it would not hear the case, saying the administration would have to start at a lower court with the seniority challenge and not even indicating an avenue for the Abbott challenge.

In a two-page ruling signed by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, the court did not issue an opinion on the merits of the arguments, only saying the administration would have to go through the normal channels that start in trial court.

“The court declines to exercise original jurisdiction to hear this matter,” read the ruling.

Long awaited, the decision was a clear rebuke to Christie’s last-ditch attempt to do away with the state’s “last in, first out” rules about teacher layoffs, a nagging point of contention for the governor that dates back to at least 2012 and the lengthy deliberations over a new teacher tenure law.

In that reform legislation, Christie sought to end the LIFO rules but eventually — and reluctantly — agreed in a compromise to leave them intact.

The administration also threw into its petition a challenge to Christie’s other longstanding peeve: the court’s Abbott v. Burke rulings that provide extra resources to impoverished districts.

In the petition, Christie asked for the court’s permission to follow through on his proposed “School Fairness Formula,” which would provide the same per-pupil amounts to all schools, essentially eviscerating the court’s decrees of the past three decades.

There was some chance for the court to at least take up the matter, with four new justices appointed to the bench by Christie. Another wild card was whether Rabner would join in the case; he has long-abstained on Abbott deliberations after serving as counsel to former Gov. Jon Corzine in first bringing the prior case.

And the court certainly kept people waiting — and anxious — taking four months to issue a decision about whether even hear the case.

But Rabner did indeed join this time, and the court left no question about its disinclination to take up the matter. And without the court even willing to hear the case, Christie will have considerably less ammunition in his last year in office to continue his arguments against LIFO and the Abbott-influenced funding formula.

Yesterday, Christie spoke only briefly on the decision, saying he had yet to review the ruling. A spokesperson said afterward that the administration would decide on whether to pursue the matter in the lower courts.

Others were more strident, saying the governor should have never taken up the cause in the first place and pressing him not to pursue it further in his state budget or elsewhere.

“We have to fix school funding in this state, but the governor’s plan was never a solution,” said state Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto in a statement. “With today’s ruling in hand, it should be clear to everyone — including the governor — that his plan is not going to prevail and should be declared dead.”

Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, added: “The court’s thorough rejection of Gov. Christie’s frivolous but costly legal action demonstrates that his political Hail Mary lacked any solid legal basis. It was simply another taxpayer-funded Christie boondoggle, designed to divert attention from his many political woes.”

Nevertheless, the decision hardly brings an end to either topic. School funding remains one of the hottest, with Prieto and state Senate President Steve Sweeney pursuing their own fixes to what has become a chaotic and inequitable funding situation for districts.

And while Christie did not succeed, others have challenged LIFO as well, with a case brought by a coalition of Newark families now being argued in administrative court.

“Concerned about looming school budget cuts, these same parents … will continue their fight in the state’s trial court to invalidate the ‘last in, first out’ law that prevents the retention of Newark’s best teachers during funding crises,” said Ralia Polechronis, executive director of Partnership for Educational Justice.