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A day after Democratic leaders announced a $125 million plan for increasing overall state funding to New Jersey’s public schools next year, the leadership released details about which districts would gain and which would lose.
Now, the public debate is poised to begin, perhaps even among the Democrats’ supporters.
Compiled by the Office of Legislative Services, the release laid out how the Democratic proposal would break down for the state’s nearly 600 districts, with close to 380 standing to gain some dollars and 120 in line for some reductions.
(Follow this link to compare how your district would fare under the Democratic plan and under Gov. Chris Christie’s recommendations.)
The list of winners and losers was varied, with no clear pattern as to urban or suburban districts.
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Chesterfield in Burlington County would see its state aid double, the biggest percentage increase in the state.
Those facing the steepest cuts were Jersey City (down $8.5 million) and Toms River ($3.3 million). No district would see a cut of more than 1.5 percent of its budget, but that’s still more than $1 million in Middletown or Manalapan-Englishtown.
The chief architect
Senate President Steve Sweeney, the chief architect of the plan, and other Democrats said the calculations were solely based on the existing funding formula and aimed at providing additional aid to the districts most underfunded, while reducing those most overfunded.
“There are no games played, there is no favoritism played to any district or another or to partisan politics,” said state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the Senate’s budget chief who spoke with Sweeney at a morning news conference in the State House. “We just ran the formula.”
But that hardly made everyone happy.
The biggest player in the mix is Gov. Chris Christie, who must sign the budget and has the power to veto any line item. While he had been involved in some of the discussions leading to the deal, he wasn’t exactly giving his endorsement yesterday in a cryptic statement from his office.
“The Governor is willing to consider the proposal, but he has some concerns about fairness,” said spokesman Brian Murray, without elaborating further.
11th hour standoff
Sweeney played down the concerns, but conceded the plan goes nowhere this year without the governor’s assent by the end of the month. He said the Democrats would restart talks with the governor and hopefully reach an agreement in the next two weeks before there is an 11th hour standoff.
“I don’t speak for the governor, but we’ll see where he’s at,” Sweeney said. “Obviously he gets a say in this too … It’s June 15th so we have time.”
“He didn’t see this until late,” Sweeney continued, “but he said several times that once [the Democrats] are together, we can talk.”
The Senate president and his staff did clarify where the money would come from to pay for the plan. He said they would propose again delaying of repayments to municipalities to fund state Homestead property-tax relief credits, a budget stunt used by Christie this year in the face of a $527 million budget shortfall.
That budget move this year pushed a roughly $300 million expense from May to July. Sweeney’s plan would hold back half the amount to cover the $125 million. “We’re moving some things around,” Sweeney said almost coyly, before passing off the details to his staff.
Millionaire’s tax redux
And Sweeney and Sarlo dropped the potential bombshell that they would move next year with the long-debated millionaire’s tax to provide an additional $800 million going forward to pay to further close the gap.
“If we can pump in $800 more, we get everyone above 70 percent [of full funding], Sweeney said. “That would be enormous.”
A ‘sick scheme’
Still many questions remain, and the criticism was swift from a variety of quarters. The New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, which typically sides more with Democrats than Republicans, came out late Wednesday calling the plan a “sick scheme” for cutting any aid to schools.
The NJEA joined a coalition of other school advocates in a public letter to legislators implored the state not to cut aid so late in the budget process, when schools had already struck their own budgets and finalized hiring for next year.
“In many cases programs and textbooks have been ordered, and hiring and firing have occurred,” read the letter from the coalition that also includes the Education Law Center, Save Our Schools NJ, and the Garden State Coalition of Schools.
“After seven years of flat funding and/or cuts, no school in the state could be expected to adjust to a budget decrease at this late date,” it continued. “Cuts will hurt students.”
The state’s school board association applauded the Democrats for at least making some progress, but echoed the concerns about the timing for any cuts. And even Republicans who have long targeted the funding formula held similar concerns as well.
“I don’t know how you tell school districts that have already adopted budgets to cut millions and lay off teachers who have already signed contracts,” said state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth). “The Democrats who control the Legislature really mismanaged this entire reform effort.”
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