School funding and bail reform testimony at Senate Budget hearing

After weeks of hearing from frustrated parents, Acting Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet dropped a budget bombshell Tuesday when he told committee members that the Murphy administration is ready and willing to revamp the school funding formula.

“Gov. Murphy has stated very directly that the school funding formula needs to be reworked and modernized,” Repollet said.

The formula has been a sticking point between the administration and legislative leaders. Repollet’s confirmation as commissioner was being held by Senate President Steve Sweeney until Murphy committed to taking a second look at his proposal to distribute school aid. Tuesday, he did just that.

“When I talk about modernizing, I’m talking about a version that represents 2018, that represents the students of 2018 and represents the growth of New Jersey,” Repollet said.

Specifically he’s talking about changing the adjustment, or hold-harmless aid, which guarantees districts won’t receive less money than in 2009 when the SFRA [School Funding Reform Act of 2008] was enacted, and changing the enrollment growth cap. Overall, Murphy wants to increase direct budget funding for K-12 districts by $284 million. It’s a reversal from Chris Christie who held funding flat during his tenure. But, the proposal was met with criticism as it would have helped schools already at 100 percent funding.

“Any reason why the budget was introduced without any discussion of the reworking or modernization of those two items?” asked Sen. Paul Sarlo.

Repollet replied, “The governor talked about, the statutory formula initiative was to fully fund the statutory formula within a four-year phase in.”

“Originally, testimony was eight to nine months to rework this. Today he said he was willing to work with us to rework and modernize the 2008 school funding formula to deal with those two issues that were put in by the Legislature in the next six to eight weeks. I think that’s a significant step moving forward, and I think that should clear up one of the sticking points for his confirmation,” Sarlo said.

Meanwhile, at an earlier Senate budget hearing, the acting administrator of the Judiciary Department, Judge Glenn Grant, told lawmakers the new bail reform measures are working, but the division is in the negative.

“Expenses are projected to exceed revenue by $13 million in fiscal year 2019. And even with large carryover balances and reserves, and strict controls over spending, our projections show the Pretrial Services Program will run out of money by the fourth quarter of 2020,” Grant said.

Grant told the committee the Pretrial Services Program has helped create a fairer and balanced system where less people are being held for minor infractions with bail they can’t afford. But the department desperately needs a dedicated source of funding, he said.

“If someone was to ask you about bail reform, ‘What do you really think?’ Do you think this has been a success? Would you suggest that it’s done in other places as well? What do you see as a problem, other than money?” asked Sen. Sandra Cunningham.

“This is a national movement. This is not unique to New Jersey. But the fact of the matter is New Jersey is a leader in this movement and it’s a positive testament to the courage of the Legislature, executive branch and the judiciary all working together to try and find the right balance,” Grant said.

It’s certain to be a busy two months ahead.