Senate Republicans unveil school funding reform bills

Republicans had nothing good to say about Gov. Phil Murphy’s anticipated call to expand New Jersey’s so-called millionaire’s tax in his budget address Tuesday.

“Increasing income taxes on anybody is nonsensical and it’s proven to chase people out of state,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr.

On Murphy’s purported plan, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick quipped, “He’s too extreme for his own party.”

Instead, Senate Republicans, with educators from across the state at their back, unveiled a new package of school funding reform bills called Every Child Counts.

“We believe that these reforms will lower property taxes, will improve the quality of education and protect New Jersey’s most vulnerable children,” Kean said.

The centerpiece would fully fund aid for all special education students, not just a certain percentage, and tie that money to the individual child, not the district.

“For example, there’s some 7,400 students that were not paid for statewide because of the way the formula is designed,” said Sen. Bob Singer. “All we’re simply saying is, pay for the students that you actually have, not what the state said should be an average of.”

Under the proposal, every special education kid would get full funding under a payment system tiered to the severity of their particular needs and without regard for their district’s relative affluence by fiscal year 2020. The cost? An estimated $193 million. Another bill would redirect money from so-called pilots, payments in lieu of taxes, back to school districts.

“And I find it particularly galling when towns on the one hand are crying poverty, like Jersey City, but on the other hand have given away over $2 billion of these pilots and tax abatements,” said Sen. Michael Doherty.

The Republicans’ goal is to soften the impact of last year’s statewide school aid redistribution that cut funding to more than 170 districts. Freehold expects it will take a cumulative $25 million hit in lost aid, and also has a $2.5 million hole in special education funding.

“So we strongly support this bill, and I thank the members from the Republican caucus for taking the time to listen because they really have listened to our complaints,” said Charles Sampson, Freehold Regional High School District superintendent.

“Currently, we have about 14 percent of our special education population and they are utilizing over 25 percent of our building budget, so this particular bill would garner tremendous support from our district,” said Little Silver School District Superintendent Carolyn Kossack.

Education advocates like the idea, but say the better plan is for Murphy to move toward fully funding New Jersey’s education aid formula, with caveats.

“As for additional state support for education that would come from increased income taxes, we don’t really know what the state has available. We accept the state’s fiscal limits,” said Jeffrey Bennett, research director of the Fair Funding Action Center.

Kean says Republicans hope the reforms can be enacted by the end of June in time for the next fiscal year.