Dampening the apparent agreement between Gov. Phil Murphy and Democratic leadership in the Legislature over school funding for next year, virtually all of New Jersey’s major school advocacy groups are joining forces to implore lawmakers to reconsider.
A coalition that includes dozens of school districts, the state’s largest teachers union, and its school boards and administrators’ organizations released an unusual letter to Murphy and Senate and Assembly leaders late last week asking them to rethink a funding plan that would leave close to 200 districts with deep state-aid cuts.
The groups commended the governor and legislators for moving toward full funding of the state’s funding formula, including a proposed increase in aid of $206 million overall for next year. But they said that should not come at the expense of districts which would see cuts.
“We urge Gov. Murphy and legislative leaders to take decisive action this year to ensure that no student is denied any educational opportunity while this important transition to fully funding the formula takes place,” reads the letter signed by nine groups in all.
“That is likely to require an even greater investment of resources immediately, but we can think of no higher priority for our state than the education of its children.”
Gathering forces to fight the cuts
How much the entreaty will resonate is yet to be seen, but the growing concerns, if not groundswell, over the school funding plan are already proving to be one of the testier topics in early budget deliberations.
This latest outreach was the idea of “Support Our Students,” a fledgling group of more than 70 districts that would see among the harshest cuts under Murphy’s proposed budget. The group led a boisterous rally outside the State House on the day that Murphy announced his spending plan for next year.
Its chair is Michael Harris, superintendent of Southampton schools in Burlington County and a former state superintendent of the year. He said in an interview Friday that this effort is not about knocking down the majority of districts that would get increases but “coming up with something that works for all of us.”
“I think [lawmakers] mean well, but there is maybe a misperception that districts are living high on the hog,” Harris said. “That’s just not the reality.”
Southampton, a K-8 district of about 700 students, would lose more than half of its state aid over the course of the seven-year plan being followed by Murphy and lawmakers, led by Senate President Steve Sweeney. The cut this year would be about $110,000; in all, it would lose more than $1 million in aid over seven years, if the plan was fully implemented.
Talking about layoffs
“But Southhampton is really not the story, it’s a statewide issue, it really is,” Harris said.
The superintendent pointed to a wide array of districts that stand to see cuts, including Toms River where close to 100 layoffs are predicted if the funding plan goes through. “There are districts that are hemorrhaging right now,” he said.
How the matter can be resolved is the question, of course. The debate revolves around the quest by Murphy and the Democrats to fully fund the state’s school funding formula, which has been underfunded by more than $1 billion a year for nearly a decade.
Murphy and the Legislature added more than $260 million this year to work toward full funding, and the governor proposed another $206 million more again for next year. But the quandary is the formula also calls for ramping down more than $600 million in extra so-called “adjustment aid” to scores of districts that was meant to save them from cuts. Murphy and Sweeney have agreed to a seven-year scale-down, with the deepest cuts still to come.
The governor has said he is committed to helping districts weather the cuts, and several measures are being considered. Among them is loosening local tax caps and providing other additional aid to make up for the losses.
“We’re talking to all of them,” Murphy said in a recent meeting with NJ Spotlight reporters. “We are not saying we have no empathy or no sympathy. In fact, we met with Toms River and Brick on the day of our budget address.”
Harris, the Southampton superintendent, said he is open to options and is looking forward to further discussions with the administration and legislators. The Senate budget committee holds its hearing on the education budget on April 30.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Harris said of the immediate and long-term prospects. “We’re looking at the long game. . . We’re not necessarily looking for it to be solved this year, but it needs to be solved.”