Demand for fair, full school funding dominates NJ Senate budget hearing

On the Rowan University campus, parents arrived at a hearing prepared with posters and placards showing rats in a Cherry Hill school, demanding the Senate budget and appropriations committee fully and fairly fund public schools.

“Our infrastructure is in a total state of disrepair,” said one concerned parent from Cherry Hill, Chris Benedetto.

“This is not a community of the uber-wealthy able to just dole out cash to make these kinds of repairs. The well is dry,” said another Cherry Hill parent, Laurie Neary.

Kathie Foster, the Robbinsville School District superintendent, who demanded more money in the last budget cycle, said the school funding formula failure is getting worse.

“If we can start from 2008-2009, we are $69 million underfunded, cumulatively,” said Foster.

Foster says Robbinsville taxpayers pay 95 percent of the school budget, and the district leans on them to pay even more.

In Chesterfield and Kingsway, the cry for cash targets Trenton.

“The governor gave us a $41,000 increase, but when you’re owed $4 million, $41,000 is not a whole lot of money,” said Andrea Katz, a committeewoman from Chesterfield Township.

“Well, in our minds it has to stop today. We’ve been fighting for this … as a matter of fact, on my Facebook page, it came up where were you six years ago today? I was meeting with then-Commissioner [Chris] Cerf,” said Jennifer Cavallaro-Fromm, Kingsway Regional Board of Education member.

“Hearing Gov. Murphy’s initial aid numbers was like taking a gut punch … I voted for him and he let me down, and most importantly, he let my kids down,” said Amy Jablonski, a Chesterfield Board of Education member.

New Jersey leaders have tinkered with the 2009 school funding formula law, but under-aided districts still insist over-aided districts are benefiting to their detriment.

Jersey City is often the whipping boy of school funding formula critics. Sen. Sandra Cunningham, who represents Hudson County, and is from Jersey City, went to the city’s defense.

“Jersey City’s situation is a little unique, but it is something that we are prepared to correct, but I do not want anyone to think that Jersey City is the poster child for over-funding, or that we’re the bad folks because of everybody else’s situation,” she said.

Senate President Steve Sweeney said, despite what’s in the budget, the governor is committed to fixing school funding and he is, too.

“One real priority for me personally, that I’m not letting go of in this budget, is school funding. As you have been supportive … it’s not about applause, it’s about getting it done,” said Sweeney. “There’s 18,500 kids being paid for that aren’t in these schools. So when the NJEA says that I want to take money away from kids, that’s complete BS!”

Sen. Sam Thompson said he’s working with Sweeney to fix school funding and criticized the governor’s budget.

“The aid figures put out here certainly are not fairer for all. They’re very unfair,” said Thompson.

The Senate budget chair, Paul Sarlo, said the administration has put more money in the budget for education, but did not fix the inequities.

“I am quite certain that the Legislature, on the budget that we will adopt and send to the governor, will address all of these folks’ issues,” said Sarlo.

And if it doesn’t, then history likely will repeat itself.