Repollet Walks Back Stance on School Aid, Says He’s Open to Compromise

John Mooney | April 18, 2018 | Education
Administration’s willingness to shift gears may get acting commissioner through the full confirmation process

State Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet
The appearance of acting state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet before the Senate budget committee yesterday came with more than a bit of drama.

As indicated by his “acting” title, Repollet has seen his confirmation held up by the Senate’s Democratic leadership due to his vague words about reforming school funding to their liking.

Senate President Steve Sweeney specifically said Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration weren’t moving fast enough, and in what is becoming a more common show of intraparty defiance, Repollet would not get his confirmation until that changed.

Yesterday, it sounded as if it had changed.

Repollet came before the committee and answered to repeated questions that the administration was willing to work with the Legislature and specifically its Democratic leadership to address their issues over Murphy’s funding proposal and specifically its provisions capping both aid increases and decreases.

And they were willing to do it sooner rather than later, in time for next year’s fiscal budget, starting in July.

“Yes, I am talking about modernizing the existing formula,” Repollet said. “Looking at enrollment growth caps, looking at adjustment aid (capping decreases), and also looking at the contributions of local shares.”

“We believe minds coming together with our students in mind,” he said at another point. “I think we can have something in place.”

Music to their ears

Afterward, Democratic leaders said that was music to their ears.

“Today was huge progress,” said state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the budget committee and a close ally of Sweeney’s. “He said this would not be a sticking point.”

What exactly that compromise will look like is unclear, however, as is how much it will impact individual districts. All sides say negotiations have begun but only offered general clues about what exactly is being negotiated.

At the center of the discussion is the administration’s funding package, which would have retained the limits that protected districts from losing aid but also capped others from getting significant increases to make up for past underfunding.

Sarlo and others said the total amount of money in Murphy’s budget would unlikely change; it already delivers the biggest increase in years, an additional $283.6 million to schools.

But it would be the distribution of that aid, with the likelihood that there would be some districts seeing more money and others taking a cut. Murphy’s budget plan would have called for no cuts, a point of pride in his proposal as he announced 94 percent of all districts would be seeing increases.

Sarlo said in no uncertain terms that both the ceiling and floor limits would have to be eased if the Legislature were going to sign off on the budget. “In order to get the support of this budget from the Legislature, quite frankly, it’s going to happen,” Sarlo told Repollet.

With Repollet saying he agreed, will this get the commissioner his confirmation?

“I can’t speak for Sen. Sweeney, but I think this clears the way for (Repollet) to be confirmed,” Sarlo said in an interview with reporters afterward.

“I think it’s a huge step in the right direction,” he said. “I think it’s a credit to the commissioner and a credit to the administration that the commitment was made.”