For all the debate and drama over state education aid last summer, the back and forth for dozens of districts over how much money they would receive this year has only just ended.
And for the majority of them, it didn’t end well.
The Murphy administration yesterday released the preliminary outcomes of emergency aid requests for nearly 50 districts that had been hit with cuts in the contentious fiscal year 2019 budget approved by Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature.
And just 13 of them prevailed, after making their case to the state Department of Education that they had no other resources to make up funds that had been slashed. Lakewood, Glassboro, and East Orange will each see more than $1 million restored, according to the breakdown.
But that left 35 applications for more than $20 million rejected by the state. Districts included some of the hardest hit in the budget negotiations, including Brick and Toms River, which asked for $1.9 million and $2.4 million, respectively.
“The Department took numerous fiscal factors into account when making its decisions, such as a district’s general-fund surplus, banked cap, unbudgeted federal grants, maintenance, and emergency reserves,” said Michael Yaple, the department’s spokesman.
Releasing no further detail, Yaple said districts could still provide additional information to try to sway the state, and several had done so. “Districts were informed they have the ability to provide supplemental information to the DOE if there are changes in circumstances or if other factors come to light,” he said.
What defines an emergency?
The use of emergency aid as a backstop against state aid cuts is a relatively new phenomenon. The funding is typically used for unforeseen disasters, like Superstorm Sandy, when the state was a major source of relief for districts that saw emergency costs climb and local revenue drop significantly.
But last year and again this year, districts have more actively used the mechanism to seek relief from the state’s own cuts in aid. This year was especially dramatic, as Murphy and the Democrat-led Legislature struck an 11th-hour agreement to increase state aid overall by $340 million, but not without 170 districts facing cuts of up to 5 percent in aid.
That left the emergency aid process as a de facto avenue to appeal the cuts, but also left districts unsure of the final outcome well into the school year.
“This is a chaotic way to deal with school funding,” said Sharon Krengle of the Education Law Center. “We are well into the budget, but districts are only now finding out whether they will get what they need.”
And she said those needs are acute for many districts, which are often not receiving the state aid they did a decade ago.
Playing the Christie card
“After eight years under Gov. Christie, districts have real needs, and administration and Legislature to need to figure out what to do about it,” she said, adding that districts next year could see cuts as deep as 13 percent.
Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the organization “opposed the severe, last-minute cuts in aid to school districts. While we support putting the (school-funding formula) back on track for the underfunded districts, we do not want the rug pulled out from any school district.”
Vrancik said some districts were hoping to use the request for emergency aid to appeal how the state determined a community’s ability to offset the cuts, but these factors were not part of the state’s decision making.
“These factors were not considered in the emergency-relief application process,” he said, “but should be considered by the state as (the law) is implemented, with necessary adjustments made in the interest of fair funding.”
State Assemblyman David Wolfe (R-Ocean) brought attention to the rejections yesterday, objecting to the state turning down districts in his legislative district, while supporting legal aid for undocumented immigrants fighting deportations.
“The school districts I represent are facing multimillion dollar cuts in state aid that went to helping educate our students,” Wolfe said. “If the governor says education is a priority then his walk contradicts his talk.”