It was surely no accident that Gov. Phil Murphy this week signed a record-setting state budget inside a gleaming — and thankfully air-conditioned — public elementary school.

For all the attention devoted to the budget’s big pension payment and its last-minute spending spree, the Ross Street School in Woodbridge provided a setting for Murphy to trumpet what he’s done for public education, a certain staple of his coming reelection campaign.

Indeed, the new funding is significant, close to three-quarters of a billion in new school dollars to what is already the biggest slice of the state’s budget. And it includes an additional $125 million specifically for high-need special education costs, not just a plus with schools but also a favorite of legislative leadership.

“This is a topic close to the Senate president’s (Steve Sweeney) heart,” Murphy said at the budget signing that was equal-part campaign rally. “And I thank him personally for that.”

Winners and losers

But even with the record-high support of pre-K–12 education, the post-budget picture for New Jersey schools isn’t all rosy, and question marks remain going into what is expected to be an even more monumental school year.

2021-22 Proposed School Aid
2021-22 Proposed School Aid

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For one, not every district is a winner in this budget, not by a long shot.

Under a budget agreement dating back to 2018, the administration and Legislature are midway through a seven-year schedule to close a $2 billion gap in what districts should have been receiving under the state’s school finance law. As part of that plan, the fiscal 2022 budget in turn will provide an additional $580 million, with the figure to rise in subsequent years.

But under a complex formula that itself is under new scrutiny, not all districts are receiving the additional state help, as close to 200 districts are estimated to lose in their baseline aid due to a host of factors that include enrollments, tax base, and other data.

They are led by far by Jersey City, facing a $71 million cut, but also another 30 districts losing $1 million or more. Freehold Regional High Schools District is one of them.

“It’s unconscionable. Over 100 districts are still being gutted in the midst of this largesse and budget surplus,” said Charles Sampson, the Freehold superintendent.

“The governor continues to ignore our pleas for relief,” Sampson said in an email. “For those of us who opened our doors early in the pandemic, the costs have been severe. To broad-stroke continued state aid cuts is simply governmental malfeasance.”

Yet as the chief architect of the funding agreement, Sweeney this week sounded like someone not budging from the agreed-upon path, and he said the cuts remain a necessity for the state to fully fund the formula. And he added that stricken districts should have plenty of help from the $2.4 billion in federal pandemic relief aid.

“With all the government money they got from the federal government?” Sweeney told NJ Spotlight News after the Senate’s vote last week. “I’m more worried what they will do with that federal aid.”

The new state budget also provides some cushion for those districts, Sweeney and officials said, including a $50 million “stabilization fund” for districts facing the cuts. Still that’s a fraction of the overall reductions and in late language added to the budget law, it will be aimed mostly at schools affected by shifting military populations.

After the budget signing, Murphy was sanguine about districts facing cuts but called it a “transition” to more stable funding.

“We know not everybody is a winner, even if the total spent is an all-time record high,” Murphy said on Tuesday. “We will work with them the best we can, and hopefully come up with solutions that don’t hurt.”

‘Extraordinary’ special education aid

Still, both Murphy and Sweeney wanted to talk more about the increases, and they highlighted the unprecedented boost in “extraordinary” special education aid aimed to help districts pay for their highest-need students. More than three-quarters of the state’s districts receive at least some of the funding, and this is no small need for districts that have seen escalating costs but a steady drop in state’s statutory share.

Under the new budget, that share will now rise to about 85% of the eligible costs, and Sweeney said he would support taking it to 100% in future budgets, an estimated $110 million more.

“School districts shouldn’t have to face the pressure of having to decide when a disabled person moves into the neighborhood, there goes the budget,” Sweeney said Tuesday. “It’s the state’s obligation.”

The special-education funding was highlighted by several of the state’s education groups, including the New Jersey School Boards Association Wednesday.

“We appreciate the increase in education-formula aid,” said Lawrence Feinsod, the association’s executive director, in a statement. “The impressive new investment in extraordinary special-education aid will provide relief for more than 500 districts.”

Nonetheless, longer-term questions persist about the fate of the funding formula itself.

Facing more than its share of criticism from nearly the day it was enacted, the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 continues to draw fire for specifics in the formula it uses to determine each district’s aid; some of these are kept under a cloak of secrecy by the administration.

And that criticism has caught the attention of lawmakers, who have moved to take a fresh look at the act as required — but rarely followed — under the law itself. The state Senate yesterday unanimously passed a bill to create a task force to study the law and its impact, and passage is expected in the Assembly as well.

What if anything comes of it is obviously uncertain, but Sweeney said he’s open to the review, while hardly urgent about it.

“Am I willing to go back and look at it? Of course, I am,” he said Tuesday.  “We need to make sure what worked 10 years ago is still effective today. We have a tendency to say we did it, and we walk away from it. We always have a fresh and new look at it.”

Did the Senate president envision changes? “Possibly,” Sweeney said. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”

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