As questions and debates heat up again over how — and how much — the state should provide in school aid, the Murphy administration will be sending another $15 million to 13 districts in midyear “emergency aid.”
Announced late Friday afternoon, the extra money is a fraction of the $362 million sought by a total of 29 districts. Newark received just $4 million of the $36 million it applied for. Jersey City asked for $215 million and received none. Paterson, facing teacher layoffs and other cuts, requested $24.6 million and received just $5 million. Still pending is an application from Camden for another $43.9 million.
The announcement of additional aid is becoming an annual amendment to the state budget presented and debated each spring, especially as dozens of districts plead poverty in the face of overall cuts. It also comes at a time when the Democrat-led Legislature is pursuing its own remedies for state funding of schools.
Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature this year increased aid overall to schools by $206 million, bringing the total in direct aid to schools to nearly $9 billion and roughly a quarter of the state’s total budget. But as part of the state’s moves to fully fund its school finance formula, close to 200 districts deemed as over-funded have also seen cuts, some of them severe.
Many of those districts were among the applicants for additional “emergency” aid. State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet’s office said Friday that those and the other applications all went through extensive review, and it released the letters to six of the districts explaining what was approved and what wasn’t.
“We are confident that these awards will allow those districts to provide quality educational services to their students,” said Mike Yaple, the department’s spokesman. “We have also informed each school district that if circumstances change during the school year, the district may request to submit additional information for the Department’s consideration.”
Those letters were informative, indeed. In some cases, the department said the needs weren’t so urgent. In others, it said the district can afford to pick up the costs elsewhere.
School districts would pick up costs
For instance, Jersey City requested that the state provide an additional $215 million that it said was needed to meet the state formula’s own definition of an “adequate” education. The state responded that the district had not done enough to tap its own resources, including its reserves and its taxpayers. It listed a half-dozen areas where the district could pick up costs.
“Based upon a thorough needs assessment … the Department determined the district has sufficient resources to fund appropriations in the 2019-2020 school year,” read the two-page letter. “Accordingly, the application is denied.”
Another applicant, Toms River’s schools have been at battle with the state — including in court — over cuts in its aid, leading to dozens of layoffs. It requested $4.4 million in emergency relief. The state approved $815,000, saying the district also had the ability to pick up the costs elsewhere.
The announcement comes at a time when the Legislature is making its own moves to help struggling districts. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has fast-tracked a bill that would allow about 40 hard-hit districts to waive the 2% cap on property tax increases to make up for cuts.
The bill won Senate committee approval last week and is likely to win legislative support in the Democrat-led Senate. However, Murphy’s office has said the governor opposes the bill in its current form, and contended the state should not be looking to property taxpayers but instead a millionaires tax to raise the needed funds. That bill is going to the Assembly next.