Closer to Compromise: Can Sweeney and Murphy Reach Closure on School Funding?

Both camps are reporting progress, without releasing any details, with the Senate president suggesting the sides may be ‘close’

Senate President Steve Sweeney
With New Jersey’s state budget — and a potential government shutdown — hanging in the balance, the Democrats’ ongoing negotiations over school funding look more and more to be about which districts will see increases and which will see cuts.

Districts and advocates are stepping up their messaging to both the Murphy administration and the Democrat-led Legislature, hoping to influence who will be the winners and who the losers when the talks conclude.

The Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group best known for leading the Abbott v. Burke litigation, released a list this week of 188 districts that it said would see state aid cuts under the plan being proffered by Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed a state budget for fiscal 2019 that calls for no cuts in state aid to any districts, and while Murphy has said he is open to negotiation, he has not yet moved publicly from that position.

Yesterday, there may have been some easing of those positions, as Sweeney’s and Murphy’s office said the two sides were close to a compromise. They were silent, however, on exactly what that agreement would be.

Hammering out a deal

“We have a meeting with the governor (today), and we’ll go from there,” Sweeney said after the Senate’s session yesterday. “It’s only June 7, and there’s no pressure on shutting down yet. We have plenty of time to hammer out a deal, and we’re hoping that this is the start of it.”

“They say we’re close. I hope we are,” he continued. “It’s just a matter of sitting down face to face and going over the numbers. But we need to get it fixed this year, not next year.”

In what he called an act of “good faith,” Sweeney yesterday cleared the way for the Senate’s long-stalled confirmation of Murphy’s education commissioner, Lamont Repollet.

Sweeney had held up the confirmation after he said Repollet and the administration had not shown enough urgency in addressing what the Senate president considered needed changes to the state’s funding formula.

For more than two years, Sweeney has called for full funding of the state’s School Funding Reform Act, but said it would require reductions to scores of districts that have been getting so-called adjustment aid meant to save them from cuts. That additional aid totals more than $670 million a year, and currently goes to 190 districts.

Getting Sweeney’s attention

“When (Repollet) testified before the judiciary committee, he said he needed six to eight months to try to fix school funding,” Sweeney said yesterday. “That got my attention.

“So honestly, I thought it was important to get his attention about the urgency of fixing school funding,” he said. “And to the commissioner’s credit, he is working very hard on this.”

That has hardly brought solace to some districts and school advocates who said Sweeney’s plan could be devastating to certain schools.

The ELC’s release this week said Sweeney’s plan would lead districts to see overall cuts of as much as $23 million in the first year, and more than $110 million by 2025.

The steepest cuts will come in Jersey City, at more than $7 million in the first year and ultimately more than $150 million overall. Others topping at least $1 million in annual reductions include urban and suburban alike, the ELC said, including Pemberton, East Orange, Brick, Freehold Regional, and Toms River.

“In many districts, the aid cuts in (Sweeney’s proposal) are so large that there is no realistic way for the districts to make up the loss by raising local revenue,” said a statement from David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director.

“Even worse, the cuts will drive many district budgets below the level of spending for a constitutional ‘thorough and efficient’ education.”

The concerns came from advocates of suburban districts as well.

“We are certainly aware of the need to reallocate adjustment aid, but the concern is how it will work out for all districts, especially those who are losing a lot (of aid),” said Elisabeth Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.

Ginsburg pointed to a range of districts facing steep cuts, saying they are being portrayed as overfunded when there are few, if any, districts in the state that haven’t been through tight financial times over the past decade.

“There are no districts who have erred and who are reveling in this,” she said.

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