A broad deal may have been reached between Gov. Phil Murphy and Democratic leaders on changes to the state’s school-funding formula, but the trickier part is deciding on the details of who will gain and who will lose under the new plan.
Yesterday, Murphy traveled to the state Department of Education in Trenton for a press event where he both praised the progress that’s been made and warned again that the deal will only go through if there’s agreement on the tax and revenue side.
And even though intra-party discord over taxes has marked this budget season, there were also questions yesterday about the final numbers that would come out of the agreement.
The Senate majority office yesterday released an assessment from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services of every district and how each would fare with the latest changes moving in the Senate and Assembly, which add an additional $65 million to the $283 million increase that Murphy has already proposed.
to see how your district would fare.
Within those totals are 192 districts that would see cuts due to the planned phase-out of so-called adjustment aid, a central piece of the agreement. The reductions were a mix of rural, suburban and urban districts, all largely due to falling enrollment.
The remaining 394 districts would see increases, some quite significant and again cutting across different types of districts. The gains, for many of them, would be due to lifting limits on enrollment growth that led to their getting a small fraction of what the formula calls for. For others, flat funding under former Gov. Chris Christie left them well short their formula allotment.
Under the Democrats’ plan, for instance, Robbinsville would see its state aid double to $6.8 million; Chesterfield would triple to $2.4 million. All but three districts in Bergen County would see an increase. All but one would get an increase in Essex County, including the state’s biggest dollar winner, Newark (up $37 million).
But in many cases, these district numbers are quite different from what Murphy proposed in his own budget plan presented in March, and that’s where it gets tricky.
Murphy yesterday kept his discussion of the changes general at his press event, also attended by state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet. (The commissioner was finally sworn into the job the day before, after his confirmation had been held up by the Legislature for several months.)
“I engaged with legislative leaders to modernize the funding formula, and make no mistake, we have made tremendous progress over the past three months,” Murphy said.
But as he did the day before at an event at the Trenton transit hub, he said any changes would be contingent on a revenue agreement that would pay for them. Murphy has been at odds with the Legislature over his proposal for a millionaires’ tax and an increase in the sales tax. Lawmakers have countered his proposed permanent tax hikes with a corporate tax increase that would last for two years.
“Until we have an agreement on sound and sane revenues, we cannot have an agreement on school funding,” he said. “We have a nice-looking half a loaf, but we need a whole loaf to make this work.”
Murphy said he spoke with families outside the event with the promise of sustainable school funding. “I cannot and I will not tell these families that we have solved their problem when I know we will be right back here in two years trying to think up new ways to dig up extra cash,” he said.
Yet he hedged further when it came to the details of the spending plan and the latest changes. Although his staff had been involved in negotiations over the plan, Murphy said he had yet to review the final modifications.
“We are still going through this,” he said, holding up a page of edits to the budget language. “And my answer hasn’t changed that all options are available. In this particular area, we have made a lot of progress and worked together with the leadership on that half of the loaf.”
Still, when questioned further about whether he would support the cuts to some districts in the plan — cuts he had previously resisted — the governor wouldn’t commit.
“I won’t speak to the specifics, because we are still going through them,” he responded to a specific question about the reductions.
While these details evidently need to get worked out, more than a dozen parents from badly underfunded districts tried to get into the event and ended up protesting outside in the lobby.
Several of them said they supported the Legislature’s bill and hoped Murphy would go along.
“It provides a true path to full funding,” said Jennifer Cavallaro-Fromm, co-chair of the new Fair Funding Action Committee, an advocacy group for underfunded districts. “We believe the Senate and the Assembly has listened to us in our testimony and accurately representing what is best for the majority of schoolchildren.”
They were not as happy with the governor, saying his fight with the Legislature over taxes is imperiling their children’s education.
“If the governor can support this legislation that has bipartisan support, we would be happy and can move forward,” said Michele Blair, a Kingsway mother who brought along her 10-year-old daughter.
Also in the crowd was Robert Beers, the superintendent of Manville schools, which would stand to gain from the Legislature’s plan $3 million in a budget of $22 million. But Beers said he can also feel for those losing aid.
“I reside in a district in Hunterdon County losing aid, but if you look at its demographics, the school enrollment has gone down by almost 50 percent,” he said.
Still, any reduction hurts, Beers said, even if there are fewer students to pay for: “I’m in a bizarre position in that where I work will benefit and where I live will not.”
— Colleen O'Dea contributed to this story