School districts greet Murphy’s budget spending plan with cheers and fears

The proposed budget bumps up school aid by $600 million, but some 200 districts will see cuts despite — they argue — having to come back from COVID-19
Credit: (Edwin J. Torres/ NJ Governor's Office/CC BY-NC 2.0)
Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his pre-taped budget message.

It’s become a perennial education photo-op in New Jersey.

Two days after the governor presents a state budget to the Legislature, the administration by law must release how state aid will break down for public school districts in what is the single biggest slice of that spending plan.

As part of the pageantry associated with that much-anticipated release, a gubernatorial visit is paid to a local district that is among the biggest winners.

On Thursday, it was a Fair Lawn middle school chosen for the stop, as Gov. Phil Murphy took to the road to sell his $45 billion budget plan, which includes more than $600 million in additional funding for public schools.

Indeed, Fair Lawn is one of the biggest beneficiaries, standing to gain an additional $4 million from the state — a 52% hike — in the next budget. It’s also one of more than 300 districts across the state that will see increases under Murphy’s plan. Lawmakers now have until July 1 to approve the Murphy budget proposal, with its boost in school aid, or draft one of their own that he will sign into law.

“The budget proposal unveiled this week furthers our commitment to ensuring that school districts have the resources they need to meet the unique needs of their students and educators, an especially critical priority as districts manage challenges caused by COVID-19,” Murphy said in announcing the increases Thursday.

WATCH: Murphy administration to increase school funding by $700 million

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Public education funding has been a rallying point for Murphy, a Democrat, since he was first a candidate for office. This year he’s pursuing it with extra gusto as he seeks a second term.

That’s evident in the budget he presented on Tuesday, catching up from a pandemic-stunted year to provide an additional $638 million in funding overall to schools, including another $50 million to preschool expansion.

And in a year many once feared would be brutal financially for schools, districts on average would see more than 6% increases in their aid, if Murphy’s plan is adopted. That state aid typically makes up about half of the total revenues for districts and is seen as a way to keep local property taxes in check.

Bad news for some districts

Yet not all are cheering, by any means. The state aid numbers also continue along the path started by Murphy and the Democrat-led Legislature three years ago to right-size the state’s funding formula over seven years. That means close to 200 districts designated as “over-aided” will continue to see cuts, some of them deep.

Once again, the biggest by far is Jersey City, with more than $70 million reduced from its $730 million budget. There’s also $8 million being cut in Toms River, and close to $7 million cut at the Freehold Regional High School district, each of them tagged under the formula as receiving too much aid from the state.

Freehold’s superintendent Charles Sampson has not been shy in his criticism of the funding strategy adopted by Murphy, and on Thursday he stressed that this is hardly the year to be cutting funding to any school district.

“Losing almost $7 million while the district fought tooth-and-nail to absorb additional personnel, PPE and other associated costs to open our doors for thousands of students … is a tough pill to swallow and sends the message that work was not important in the eyes of state leadership,” Sampson said in an email.

Legislators representing many of these districts were among the first to criticize as well, including state Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), whose legislative district overall has seen a $7 million drop in aid during Murphy’s tenure.

“Even this year, with the most bloated state budget in our state’s history, the Governor’s funding plan still gives our local school districts short shrift,” Oroho said in a statement. “Our schools once again will be crippled by deficient state aid, and property taxpayers in our district will be burdened with higher rates to fill the void.”

Murphy in his budget did propose some potential relief for these and other districts in the form of a $50 million “stabilization fund” that districts facing extenuating circumstances could apply for. Murphy has also added $25 million in additional funding for extraordinary special education costs, a funding that helps all districts.

Among the winning districts

A majority of districts are nonetheless on the positive side of the ledger, from both urban and suburban communities. The biggest winners are districts such as Newark and Elizabeth, with $85 million and $35 million increases, respectively.

But the wealthier district of Glen Ridge in Essex County was another, seeing a 25% boost in its aid. Its school board president said the governor’s increase in aid to a majority of districts was a balm to many like her own that were on “pins and needles” about what he’d do in such a tumultuous year.

“There is a great sense of relief,” said Elisabeth Ginsburg, the board president who also leads the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a statewide suburban schools association.

“It just makes planning easier,” she said. “There are just so many unknowns right now, so at least one of the variables is taken care of … It’s a relief that the worst fears have not been realized, and we can move forward.”